Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thor: The Dark World


When I walked out of Thor: The Dark World, I asked a friend what he thought. His answer, "well... that was a movie." I laughed, but come to think of it, that about sums up how I felt.

Looking back on my thoughts for the first Thor film, I think I was just more surprised with what Kenneth Branagh and co. were able to get right as opposed to looking for things that bothered me. I always felt Thor would be the most difficult character to capture on screen. Do you just make it a PG-13 version of 300 and feature Thor and his viking comrades? Do you show Donald Blake walk into a cave with a stick and then suddenly turn into a superhero? Since Marvel Studios was planning for Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America to be part of an Avengers film, the idea of focusing on both Asgard and Earth actually led to the first Thor being an enjoyable fantasy-action movie. 

This sequel, feels quite similar to the first. There's some action with the sensibility of your average video game, but the characters and performances (especially in concerns to Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and the chemistry between the two of them) keep everything moving. Only in retrospect did I realize how the film plodded along and how forgettable it all actually is because at the time of the movie I was too busy saying "oh, that's kind of cool" (I think it helps that I am such a die-hard comic book fan).

Back to the reaction of 'oh, just another movie'... this unfortunately just feels like another placeholder for Avengers 2 similar to how Iron Man 3 wavered between being its own singular adventure and still being a part of a larger universe. I'm curious as to when Marvel will decide to return to the world of Thor because there are some interesting plot threads left open, but sadly it seems we'll have to wait until 2016 at the latest.

12 Years a Slave


The shot I found most astonishing in 12 Years a Slave is a long take that takes place somewhere near the last third of the film. The slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) has disobeyed the master of the plantation Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). She is tied to a post and is to be beaten. Epps decides to make the story's protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to be the one to lash her bare back with the whip. Solomon whips her a few times and Patsey is screaming and crying. At a point the camera will rest on their faces before pulling back to show the surroundings of the scene. Solomon is distraught and eventually he can't do it any more so Epps steps in and finishes the job. With each rapid lash of the whip we see skin come flying off Patsey and red lines of blood and flared scars take shape. Many of the supporting characters of the film are watching as Epps is screaming in a bloody rage. The camera never cuts and Hans Zimmer's subtle, but effectively haunting score plays through the entire moment. The reaction I felt was along the lines of, 'How can this be a movie? That felt so real. The skin flew off her back and there was literally no pause in the moment....'.

The film is full of other long takes similar to director Steve McQueen's previous films- Hunger and Shame. He then cleverly chooses when to cut and that is well after the pain of the moment we are witnessing has not only just settled in, but has become unbearable to watch (the scene where Solomon hangs being a perfect example). McQueen, a former artist, directs like a poet. His films wash over you and certainly feel timeless no matter the era of events. He loves to focus on discomfort and men who are trapped in solitude, which seems to be a big theme of films this year other then disrupting the American dream; that theme being of people in isolation (see Gravity, All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, etc.). The story of 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon from person to person as we the audience discover alongside the formerly free man what this "new" world entails.  The emotional performance of Ejiofor holds everything together despite the constant changing of scenery. Solomon is a character that is forced to rarely speak and mostly feel, so Ejiofor uses his eyes and mannerisms to make us understand Solomon's despair and misery from excruciating moment to moment. Other mentions to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, screenwriter John Ridley, composer Hans Zimmer, and performers Fassbender and Nyong'o are deserved who just like Ejiofor, it'd be hard to imagine the film without their participation and talents.

It has been well documented that the films that end on an unsure and even sad note are sometimes the more effective. For a story to remind us that not everything is right in the world seems more poignant than everything being tied up neatly in a bow. Solomon does make it home to his family and that final scene is incredibly powerful and certainly one of the greatest scenes in a film that I've ever witnessed, period. He is happy, but he still went through such apalling hell that even though the character may seem content, we the audience still have to live, like Solomon, with the atrocity of nature we just witnessed. Storytelling at its best.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Captain Phillips


The one aspect I was most impressed with after watching Captain Phillips was how director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray chose to make us feel something for both sides in the conflict. It's surprising that I should feel anything at all really as the film is somewhat procedural in its nature, but that is what makes the film have an impact in the first place. We observe Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks in another incredible turn) interact with his crew and later as he lies to pirates to keep them safe. We observe Muse (Barkhad Abdi, a revelation of a performance) come from an impoverished land where crime is his only out and later as he attempts to get the upper hand on Phillips by taking him hostage aboard a lifeboat. We empathize with them both. We understand who they are, what they are doing, where the come from, and why they are doing what they need to do. By the film's end when both characters have had their sensibilities shattered, emotion just naturally comes seeping into the film's fabric of a storyline and character arc. Michael Mann recently complimented Greengrass on his latest film and rightfully so as this film's structure somewhat reminds of Mann's The Insider. That was another film that might've felt driven by plot as you watched it, but the nature of events then leads to a deeper understanding of each singular character.

Of course much has already been written about Greengrass's cinematic style. His use of handicam is matched by no one else. Along with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) every move feels almost choreographed. So many other filmmakers just use the shaky camera to create a sense of chaos and their intent seemingly ends there. Greengrass takes it a step further as he brings us right into the middle of the situation to understand not just the story, but to place us alongside these characters. Every shake, every zoom, and every rattle feels intentional. Whether it was the car chase in The Bourne Supremacy, the storming of the cockpit in United 93, or the final foot chase in Green Zone- Greengrass seems to operate the monopoly on skillfull handicam work without any doubt.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Machete Kills


Machete Kills is certainly crazier than the first installment. It's parts Southern noir meets Moonraker (there's a sentence I thought I'd never type). Unfortunately for me (and based on conversations with friends, I seem to be showcasing the less popular opinion), crazier doesn't equate to funner in my opinion. I thought Robert Rodriguez's 2010 Machete film was hilarious. It was clever and with this sequel I was hoping that I'd get more of the same. Sure, Rodriguez is intelligent and creative enough to know that more of the same shouldn't really be the answer. Give the audience more, more, and more of something different with enough of the DNA of the first to compliment what has come before. Yet I can't say why, but there are a few cases of where I'm comfortable with a similar experience when it comes to some film franchises. Take Peter Jackson's prequel Hobbit trilogy to his Lord of the Rings trilogy. You could complain about it being just that phrase of "more of the same", but when "the same" is so damn good, maybe you shouldn't mess with it.

Where Machete was over the top with a certain restrained sensibility (because lets face it, exploitation movies did look like and were actually made for dirt cheap), Machete Kills throws that out the window.  If the first was Rodriguez making the exploitive version of a Mel Brooks parody, then this is if Mel Brooks became possessed by a money-grubbing studio head (and I don't mean for that to sound as insulting of a criticism as it might seem). Machete Kills still delivers something of a good time because its satire is now includes that of sequels and blockbuster-filmmaking. Gone is the R-rated and endearingly constructed parodical storyline of the first. Here the film moves from scene-to-scene, over complicates the plot, and amps the spirit of the first film to an 11 on the 1-10 scale. Maybe Rodriguez is a mad genius in a sense. Where the first film was trashy with a wink, this film is trashy with a nod and I had a little trouble getting behind it all.

Gravity


Just about every film lover I've talked to is praising Gravity for its technical wizardry. Director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron has showcased a care for such visual intricacies with his previous work, most notably Children of Men. His love for the long take and how to pull it off organically certainly places his work in an elite group of films made by Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, John Woo and Robert Altman. Gravity seemingly uses the long take not just to contribute to the feeling of weightless wandering that space constitutes, but it also makes what is lately used far too much as a gimmick, actually feel like it has a place in storytelling- that being 3D.

Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Wim Wenders (Pina), and Ang Lee (Life of Pi) are the only filmmakers in recent memory that made accomplished movies that featured the technology, but one thing always bothered me about the conceit and that was the editing. Fact being that movies are made up of a series of edits and that when the shot that had leaves falling down in the background suddenly switches to a shot of leaves not falling down in the background and those said leaves were being "enhanced" by 3D, it's quite distracting. The 3D here works so effectively because (like those filmmakers I mentioned above), Cuaron also knows when not to overbear us with the visual effect. Debris will come flying all of a sudden, but it feels natural because when there is a cut, that debris has passed out of the frame for the moment.

The camerawork itself is something be in awe of as well. Emmanuel Lubezski (Cuaron and Terrence Malick's regular cinematographer and a five-time Oscar nominee for A Little Princess, Sleepy Hollow, The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life) moves the camera so effectively and organically through space that the feelings of weightlessness, buoyancy, and ranges of speed all feel like a singular part of one's viewing.

A few have commented how the performances are one of the film's shortcomings. I'd have to somewhat disagree. Certainly this movie can be taken as a visual feat and crowd-pleaser, but what Stone (Sandra Bullock) is experiencing is not just survival, but also a passage of grief. The space station disaster is not the only disaster of her life and the events of Gravity are an analagous representation of body and mind being affected by sudden life-altering chaos. On the nose? Yes. Does it work? I'd say so.

Every piece of this movie feels perfectly orchestrated and at no point do I feel the filmmaker emerging to say "hey, by the way, you are watching a movie." Instead, the film is what the other greats of the year are: a fluid experience.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Don Jon


The most impressive thing about Don Jon, the directorial debut of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who stars as Jon in the film), is how the story's progression feels incredibly intuitive and natural. Assuming the first draft of the script and the final cut of the film out of the editing room resembles Gordon-Levitt's vision, one can see the film doesn't really make any pretensions. It's meant to be very funny, boisterously high-spirited, and therefore just all-around quite entertaining. Dare I say that this debut (that I'm not quite sure how universally adored, hated, or accepted it is) kind of has a certain Robert Altman-esque flavor to it? Not so much in style or content, but in how the film feels as pastiche (meant as a compliment) as it feels wholly original? This is an R-rated comedy that I'm sure could've been pitched to an investor as Steve McQueen's 2011 film Shame meets Saturday Night Fever and because it never lets up and relishes its own little microcosmic world of its lead character, it never seems to lose steam.

Except perhaps at one point as the film winds down towards its conclusion. Jon is a guy who has trouble with relationships because although he can have any girl he wants, his porn addiction prevents him from being able to appreciate or build intimacy with his most recent beau, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Throughout the film, Jon is taking a class to impress his girlfriend and keeps running into a woman named Esther (Julianne Moore). Without ruining too much of the film, Jon eventually accompanies Esther back to her place when his relationship with Barbara is not really working out. The film then takes a dramatic turn that although is handled in a manner that doesn't make it feel overly sudden, I felt like it sort of halts the film's preppy pace. At least the ending is redeeming and meaningful despite feeling forced by that random bit of drama I just referenced.

At the end of the day, Don Jon is a movie about movies and whether they are adult or not, there is a small bit of subtext about how those smatterings of pop-culture have an impact on our personal lives. As the year winds down, it's nice to see a hardened (no pun intended) and freshly put together piece of entertainment.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Grandmaster


I was on an Asian cinema kick a few years ago as I discovered more foreign and authored films. It started with the new wave of talent from South Korea with directors like Park Chan-wook (Joint Security Area, Oldboy, Thirst), Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring), and Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil). From there I investigated directors from other countries whose American films I was appreciative of such as John Woo's Hard Boiled or The Killer and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution or The Wedding Banquet. Sampled a variety of other films that had won awards overseas such as Tokyo Sonata, Last Life in the Universe, Cyclo, Audition, Not One Less, and many others. When it came to Hong Kong, aside from Woo, I just up, went, and delved into the work of Wong Kar-wai, a director whose cinematic legacy seems to practically have been already written.

His films are foremost beautifully shot and frankly their cinematography (most shot by Christopher Doyle, although this most recent one is by Philippe Le Sourd) is like nothing I've ever seen. All at once lush, dark, monumental, and fluid- he realizes that film is a visual medium. He loves to tell his stories through montage, voice-over, silence, and constant visual trickery (for lack of better terminology). When I first watched In the Mood for Love... something just didn't click. I wasn't sure if I liked it. I grasped at straws about why the film was made the way it was, why the film was presented the way it was, why the story was told the way it was, etc. etc. etc. Then I watched 2046, Happy Together, Chungking Express and by the time I revisited In the Mood for Love... I still may not understand where Wong comes from, but I do really love where he takes me. His work is shocking in an ethereal way. His movies have a certain sensuality to them not just visually, but in how Wong draws you in with all the aspects of filmmaking that a director has under his or her control. In the Mood for Love now stands in my eyes as it seems to stand in the eyes of many others as quite possibly the most definitive film that has captured romantic love onscreen in its bare form for all its good and bad. Upon my second viewing, I already felt a lump in my throat when Tony Leung's character steps up to a ruined wall and rests his head against it so he can whisper into a hole and then cover up that hole with mud.

Now, since I'm done with my usual ranting about the filmmaker, I'm a little troubled to discuss Wong's latest film, The Grandmaster. Mainly because I saw what is seemingly the dreaded "American cut" and maybe something is wrong with me- but I really liked it. I'm sure the Hong Kong cut or the directors cut will elevate the film's quality to me, but I actually really, really, really enjoyed what American producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein presented in theaters here in the States (although I wonder if those expository title cards were in the place of actual footage, but I thought the titles helped with the film's sense of grandiose history). The film is based on the true story of martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung) and touches on his rise to prominence as well as his relationship with the daughter and heir of another grandmaster of one of the many forms of martial arts, Gong Er (Zhang Yimou). Tony Leung is like the antithesis of many American actors whose faces can scream different emotions. Somehow, Leung can tell a story with his acting and yet his face is like a stone carving (the scene in Cyclo where he walks down the hallway to Radiohead's Creep being a perfect example). Leung seems to be much like his character where a motion or word of his never feels wasted or misused. Zhang Ziyi who became famous after her breakout performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, handles her role oppositely to that of Leung in that she is very forward with her feelings. 

So this movie keeps moving from fight to fight with historical reference points about war and family alongside talks about martial arts and philosophy. Towards the end when Gong Er is ill and finally reunited with Ip Man at a table, their late confession of love becomes one of the most powerful scenes I've seen this year even though it's handled with such subtlety amongst such a grand plot. The scene features the two tragic characters just sitting there and not moving much and the scene ends with a smile when Gong Er says "To say there are no regrets in life is to fool yourself. Imagine how boring life would be without regrets." With that line of dialogue and with the entire film at that line's back, the film gives me an out-of-body feeling. That feeling that I just experienced art that has somehow contemplated life and all of its ins and outs. These characters find peace, perhaps unlike other characters from Wong's films, and I think that is proof enough that Wong still has so much more to say about his own legacy.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Blue Jasmine


Mention Woody Allen and most will think of his comedies, but he has shown over the course of his career (consisting of nearly a film a year since the 70s) that he is equally adept at films more dramatic in nature. His 1992 film Husbands and Wives is one great example. One can't watch the film and not keep in mind the director's high publicized personal crises and problems of the time and that makes the scenes between Allen and his ex-wife Mia Farrow ring all the more poignant and painful. Another great example of a Woody Allen drama is 2005's Match Point which features some of the most sexual and violent scenes in the filmmaker's career. These are the sort movies of his that might make you think you are not watching what has come to be named a "Woody Allen film". That being said, some inklings of the director's auteuristic tendencies sneak their way in and Allen's latest film Blue Jasmine is no exception to his dramatic ouvre.

The film has been described as Woody Allen's A Streetcar Named Desire mixed with Almodovar mixed with a ripped-from-the-headlines story about Bernie Madoff's family. The story is about Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) whose husband (Alec Baldwin) was arrested for white collar/financial crimes leading Jasmine to abandon her very rich and elegant lifestyle in New York City to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in a more blue collar family apartment in San Francisco. The film is full of so many great scenes to talk about and I wish I had written this response closer to when I first saw the film, but to touch on a main point- Jasmine is mentally ill. She talks to herself, breaks into hysterics, stares into space, drinks, pops pills... this all sounds like it could be a classical comedy about a rich woman having to make due with a less-than-wealthy lifestyle, but Allen handles it as seriously as he can.

Of course, the true center of the film and what makes the movie work is the performance of Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. She is equally oft-putting and yet I feel the need to care for this woman. There is something about how Blanchett draws us in; this is another incredible high-point for her already illustrious career. The film also works in part thanks to Sally Hawkins (see Happy-Go-Lucky from Mike Leigh to witness Hawkins in another brilliant performance) whose ability to see silver linings and conquer her problems despite great hardship makes her the perfect antithesis to Blanchett's icey characterization. The rest of the cast is great with an honorable mention to Andrew Dice Clay (I never thought I'd say that I was so moved by a performance from the guy who shouted "Hickery Dickery Dock"). Then there's the ending- part downer and part fulfilling. It's just nice to have seen another great Allen film so soon after Midnight in Paris.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Rush


My main problem with Rush that prevents me from really liking the movie as much as everyone else, is that I feel like the film is a character piece that doesn't dig all that much into its characters. 

The story chronicles the rivalry between formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Hunt is a muscular playboy who beds numerous women and parties hard, but he's not one-hundred percent at peace with what he does for a living. He's good at it and he isn't afraid, but he's troubled. His hands shake under the table at press conferences and he throws up in private just about every time before he gets into the car. Thankfully he can hide that all away behind his demeanor. Lauda has a face that is described to be "ratty". He is rude, condescending, and the only reason he probably doesn't get his ass kicked is because he is also incredibly talented. He is pragmatic, logical, and has an argumentative 'I'm-always-right' mentality about himself. If Hunt has internal problems hidden behind an impressive brawn than Lauda has external problems (especially after a grave injury that takes place later in the film) protected by his braininess. They are polar opposites; archetypes that simply exist and carry the characters to the end of the film. There is some growth in the third act, but ultimately it is choreographed early and partially ignored as the narrative just moves from race to race as if to almost keep up with the vast history the story wishes to portray.

That being said, the film is beautifully shot by Anthony Dodd Mantle (Danny Boyle's usual director of photography), has a profoundly moving score by Hans Zimmer, and director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (the two worked together previously on Frost/Nixon) are smart enough to never make the film feel that repetitive. The cinematography, editing, and sound design feels different for every race and has a fluidity that makes up for what I felt was a motionless plot. Daniel Bruhl's performance as Lauda is also exemplary. There really is no other word for it. Hemsworth, Olivia Wilde, and the rest of the cast are certainly good, but Bruhl seems to be at a whole other immersive level with his work here that his Lauda displaces the other characters. Howard is normally known for making crowd-pleasing movies that deal with more complex feelings and topics than most Hollywood films. Examples of this with Howard include Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon. Rush certainly isn't on par with those, but it is a very well-crafted attempt of bravado storytelling in that mold.

Prisoners



The script to Prisoners by Aaron Guzikowski is a fine script on its own. One can see why a movie studio would say yes to this project. This is also the kind of script that without a great director, it might just feel like another revenge tale. However, under the skilled attention of Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), an incredible cast, and high production values especially thanks to the work of legendary cinematography Roger Deakins (see most Coen brothers movies)- Prisoners was elevated to such a high level of storytelling that I can't help but find the film as deeply moving as I out it to be intricately dark and thrilling.

The film asks a basic question, how far would one go to save the ones we love? We've seen movies depict a government torturing a prisoner to gain information to save the lives of millions, but what about when it is your own family? The film introduces us to Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) when he is out hunting with his son (Dylan Minnette who was astounding on NBC's Awake). They shoot a deer and on the drive back home, Dover somehow steers the conversation to talk about how to be prepared for anything no matter how fearful you might be. As a man, Dover is the kind of guy who has a basement full of survival gear and is deeply religious (the film is full of heavy-handed but effective symbolism (i.e. the snakes, being unable to finish the lord's prayer, etc.). His family seems accustomed to his personality as do his friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). On Thanksgiving, Dover, his wife (Maria Bello), his son, and daughter all go over to the Birch's house for dinner. The two young daughters of both families go outside to play and head back to the Dover residence only for them to go missing. Matters escalate and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes the girls were abducted with his only suspect being Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a mentally challenged boy who is being cared for by his aunt (Melissa Leo). Now take a second and notice the talented names I've placed in parenthesis. The sheer acting prowess this film possesses, alongside a complex and twisty script, and beautifully dark and nuanced lighting elevates what sounds like a Law and Order episode and turns it into one of the most emotional experiences of the year.

This film is far from torture porn. Keller kidnaps Alex, tortures him and demands to know the location of the girls. There is seemingly just as much evidence and possibility that Alex knows something, as there is that he doesn't. If Keller is right about the boy, then he will get to see his daughter again who with every hour of each day is most likely crying to be with her family. If he is wrong, then he is committing a grave injustice and going against a set of morals that he feels strongly enough to break. Jackman and Gyllenhaal are like I've never seen them before. Jackman carries himself with such a rage and Gyllenhaal makes the case seem so personal in such a realistic manner that you forget the trope of the personally attached detective.  The film takes you inside the case with the pain faced by a grieving family and the constant struggles of the police to find a solution in a mountain of contradictions and crimes that pile on top of each other (just see the intense interrogation scene when a gun is taken off an officer by a suspect).

Villeneuve masterfully brings this all together and the final result is a film that I feel will leave audiences unsure of how the feel about the film's quality. I found it to be incredible, but maybe others will just be too turned off by a singular element that I see as part of a tapestry.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Savages


I figured I'd catch up on some movies that I had wanted to see a year ago and Oliver Stone's latest was playing on HBO. Stone is the kind of director whose name immediately sparks an interest in my wish to see a film. Certainly if you look at his filmography, his films have dipped in quality since his heydey of the late 80s and through the 90s (Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fouth of July, The Doors, JFK, Heaven and Earth, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, U-Turn, and Any Given Sunday) and yet even with his later work (World Trade Center, Money Never Sleeps) he still has something to say. Kind of like the idea of how Woody Allen, who makes a film every year, has made so much that he can't help but waiver in quality and yet he is still patiently adding brick-by-brick to a wall of his work that will be looked back on with affinity for its breadth. Perhaps the best modern counter-part to Stone is Spike Lee whose masterpieces were early in his career like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X and yet he still has some unique stories to contribute like with 25th Hour or Inside Man.

Something else I admire about Stone is his ability to make his points bluntly and then beat those points to death and still have a meaningful moment. It doesn't always work, but when he makes it work, it absolutely becomes the most talked about moment of his film in question. A non-Stone example would be how at the end of Paul Greengrass's underrated thriller Green Zone, Matt Damon stands up and outright says "The reason we go to war matter!", thus forcing an overly blunt attempt at giving this story more meaning when the film was functioning so well as a crafty and thrilling experience in suspense. A case where being blunt can work for someone such as Stone would be how during JFK, Kevin Costner makes his closing arguments and reminds us of the trajectory of the bullet that killed the president. "Back and to the left." "Back and to the left." "Back and to the left." Each time the camera angle adjusts every so slightly with Costner saying it differently and getting a different and more intense reaction each time he says it.

With that in mind, I can see why so many enjoy Stone's Natural Born Killers. The film is everything one has come to expect from Stone but with added dose of adrenaline and steroids. Savages seems like an attempt to recapture that zaniness with the celebrity and examination of violence from Natural Born Killers being replaced with issues of cross-cultural communication and economics in Savages. The film got some great reviews. A lot of critics seemed to really dig it. I just didn't quite care for it as much as I was hoping. The film feels careless with its depiction of characters and events and I don't even mean that in a moral sense. The movie lets these characters wander into and out of extremely volatile and tense situations all in the name of two men's love for a single woman and yet then there is a sudden attempt at a sociological angle that I feel takes away from those stakes... a comment about immigration here or a statement about the devils of the United States government there. The film has such a talented cast that I'd much rather see an exploration of emotion instead of a descent into exploitation.

For a movie where much is at state, I'm just having trouble grasping at the suspense when I'm pretty sure the stakes warrant much more emotionally reliable characters who are instead treated as postmarks.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dredd


Had I seen this before the end of the year 2012, I would've certainly placed it among one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. I admire director Pete Travis' career so far (his work on Endgame more so than Vantage Point) and Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) has always been a buzz-worthy screenwriter, so I had high hopes for a more realistically down-and-dirty take on Judge Dredd whose characterization and world had previously been butchered in an overly commercial 1990s Sylvester Stallone incarnation. I saw the trailer for this new adaptation and it just didn't seem all that interesting. There was a bunch of slo-mo and a sense of gratuitous violence; I felt like I had seen fifty other trailers like this already. Then there were the rumors of the film's troubled production that were eventually confirmed. So at that point, I had written the movie off completely.

Then it came out and it started to get some decent write-ups. A few bloggers and members of various forums I frequent had given it some high praise. I started to see it pop-up on "Surprises of the Year" or "Movies You Thought Were Going to Suck But Didn't" lists. Fast track to a year later and my friends are telling me to give it a watch. I sat down and watched it and frankly, it should be the blueprint for an ideal action film.

Not to say the action genre is any lesser or greater than others, but it certainly has become a widely popularized, mainstream, and diluted style of filmmaking. For every Aliens or Die Hard there are five other rip-offs to be found at the box office. Thankfully, Dredd is so well-crafted that you can't help but admire how thrilling and fun the experience is. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I always say the mark of a good movie is if I'm moved or changed when I leave the theater. Whether I cried for a drama, laughed at a comedy, or cheered for an action hero, I would ultimately feel different. Then I can say I recommend the experience of a specific work. In this case, I felt fully enveloped into this world through it suspense.

The plot of Dredd is quite simple, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, in a very Eastwood-esque manner) is stuck training a new rookie judge named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on her first outing. The city they work in is populated by rampant gang violence with gang leaders controlling their turf from tower blocks that resemble part-ghetto and part-gated community. Each tower-structure is its own world with its own rules. Dredd and Anderson soon find themselves tracing a drug to a block run by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who once the judges are inside, looks down the complex and puts a bounty on their heads. The only thing the judges can do... fight their way to the top and remove the cruel leader from her post. 

Cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle (like Garland, a collaborator of Danny Boyle's) stages the shots and set-ups so beautifully that the film looks like an almost steam-punk version of The Wire. The action is kinetic and constantly moving with the edits and the camera work. The quickest shootouts or shot of characters running is as thrilling and nerve-wracking as the next major set-piece. Travis and Garland are smart enough to include some character development. Dredd really only changes at the end while much of the arc is placed on Anderson and we end up learning about others through her. The gratuity that might've turned me off turns out to be a part of the darkly-cynical and sometimes humorous tone of the work and the slo-mo is actually a clever plot-device that showcases the effects of the drug use.

Visually stunning and a lot of fun, but at no point feels like it was part of some factory assembly line of mass produced movies. Argueably an underrated and undervalued example of how the action genre can be revived.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The World's End


The films (or "flavors") of Edgar Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy are always a bit more than just comedic genre films. At their heart they are about relationships and coupled with Wright's more sophisticated brand of humor (dare I say "British humor"), one can see why critics, audiences, and cinephiles hold him in such high regard. He has spoken at length about how he and Simon Pegg were fans of some of the classic films of popular-culture when they were younger, but as they got older they realized that they cared more about the characters than the action scenes or special effects. For me, films like Jaws or The Exorcist can be admired for their jump-from-your-seat moments, but upon multiple re-watches I find myself concentrated on the performances and the as-written arc that these characters go through deserves quite a bit of credit.

Shaun of the Dead tackled zombies, Hot Fuzz dealt with buddy-cop movies, and now The World's End deals in alien-robot invasions and like the other two, Wright and Pegg's latest is as witty, quick, and fun as one would expect. The one thing that I really enjoyed (and in reference to what I mentioned above) was Simon Pegg's brilliantly hilarious and heartfelt performance as Gary King. Gary is completely selfish and is a screwup holding onto the past. As the film moves towards its conclusion, you realize how intimate of a portrayal Pegg has been giving the character throughout the entire movie. The character like the jokes, like the plot, like the intensity... just builds and builds and builds on itself til it reaches an appropriately and excitingly funny and dramatic crescendo. Wright has also assembled a great ensemble consisting of verstaile actors such as Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Rosamund Pike whose characters all might seem like they have their baggage more together then "the King", but they are also reflecting on lost youth and missed opportunities.

The World's End is surprisingly powerful when all is said and done and definitely worth a second watch.

(For anyone curious, I rank Wright's films as such- 1) Shaun of the Dead, 2) The World's End, 3), Hot Fuzz, and 4) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Butler


The Butler might be blunt with the points it's trying to make about history's past transgressions, but ultimately it's still moving. One could compare it to 1985's The Color Purple, a film that was nominated for many awards and is among the films that have helped pundits to determine what future films they call "Oscar Bait". I know the term is just used to describe a film that is deemed "prestige" come the awards circuit, but I've never been fond of the term. Even when it isn't used as such, it seems to make a film seem like less than the sum of its parts. The Butler is directed by Lee Daniels (Precious), written by Danny Strong (Recount), and has a large cast of countlessly recognizable names. Yet it's far from "bait".

The Butler is inspired by the story of African American Cecil Gaines, who started out with his family on a plantation, ran away, and became the White House butler under eight presidencies (five of which are focused on in the film). As the quiet servant who must observe parts of a century of drastic change that is equally depressing as it is inspiring, the film has a chance to show Gaines interact with historical figures and events in the vein of Zemeckis' Forrest Gump. Instead, and much to my surprise, the film focuses on the Gaines family. Those scenes are certainly powerful, but I was expecting the film to focus on the presidents who instead are effectively cameos in Gaines' story. To focus on the White House for a second, the presidents are portrayed as fragments of how America remembers them, which frankly, I don't have much of a problem with despite the wish to see the actors in more scenery. One always says there are truths inherent in stereotypes and I suppose the same is true of caricatures. Afterall, I seem to remember Clinton and W. Bush more along the lines of their SNL impersonations than their CNN apperances.

To focus back on Gaines, since the presidents are just a part of his work life, we get to see what happens when Gaines comes home to his family as one part of his being sinks into another. In a way, by focusing on the family unit, the film makes its point much better than trying to rationalize or be overly accurate with history. As Cecil's wife, Gloria Gaines, Oprah Winfrey is a presence on screen. I hope she continues to act because she is already a star as a just a celebrity figure and she can be (if not already is in the eyes of some) the same as an actress. David Oyelowo plays Gaines' son, Louis, an impressionable boy who on his journey through adulthood decides to become a part of the Civil Rights movement going as far to work alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and then becoming a Black Panther. I've been noticing Oyelowo in a lot of films as of late and this one in particular (the other being the superb and underrated Middle of Nowhere) allows him to really stretch and take a character through a significant arc making him the kind of actor who I look forward to popping up in whatever film I plan on seeing that has him as a part of the cast.

Then of course there is Forest Whitaker. A highly accomplished actor, his portrayal of Cecil is worthy of the rest of his distinguised filmography (my favorites being as varied as Ghost Dog and Idi Amin). His work here is transformative and quietely impassioned. He drives home the point that this movie really is about a family and the relationship a father and husband has with those around him. Praise is deserved for Danny Strong and Lee Daniels who move the audience through many different eras that Daniels directs in a few different styles (although the film's editing is certainly its strongest aesthetic quality). As I mentioned above, the movie may suddenly feel like a history lesson, but throughout it all we are asked to empathize with Cecil, which is the most important quality of the film no matter how well or poorly crafted I suppose one might find the work as a whole.

Kick-Ass 2


Aside from being offended by say the film's treatment of female characters or violence, another problem I could see someone having with Kick-Ass 2, is that it simply retreads ground covered in the first one under the pretense of the story and characters advancing. I'll forego a discussion about the film's themes and content mainly because it's (1) certainly a discussion that a person much smarter and informed than I should even broach and (2) similar to how I approached the first, I'd rather focus on just the basics of the filmmaking approach especially considering this is a sequel during another summer of sequels (or prequels, threequels, remakes, reboots, etc.).

Jeff Wadlow certainly doesn't have as careful of a directorial hand as Matthew Vaughn displayed in the first where at least the characters had a few moments to pop and surprise me. Instead we have just a few action sequences and gimmicks that are entertaining enough for someone such as myself who enjoys the escapist, horrid, and ludricous work of Kick-Ass's creator, comic book writer Mark Millar, as a guilty pleasure. Therefore, Kick-Ass 2 feels like a pale imitation of the first. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) was a comic book nerd who decided to try out being a superhero in real life in the first film. In the second film, Dave wants to just act as a neighborhood watch.  Mindy Macready (Chloe Moretz) was an eleven year old girl who is trained to be a fierce killer that swears like a sailor in the first film. In the second film, Mindy is stuck trying to join a 'Mean Girls' clique and is forced to hang up her costume. Frankly, both the characters don't really advance all that much. My favorite sequels are the ones that take everything about the first film to the next and often deeper level (a classic example being the Ripley character's development in Scott's Alien to Cameron's Aliens, both great films made in a different in style).

The first film also had a very surprising and inspired performance by Nicolas Cage as something along the lines of Adam West's Batman meets a psychopath. It seems like the filmmakers were hoping to capture that same magic with the casting of Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes, but the performance, although inspired, is nowhere near as out-there as Cage's and it feels quite limited due to the character's eventual fate. With the personas feeling less developed, Kick-Ass 2 feels like less of a satire and more of a blockbuster as opposed to the first which at least made an attempt (to varying degrees of success) to walk that thin line. I still laughed quite a bit and some of the scenes were exciting and fun to behold from a visual standpoint, but I was hoping for more. Afterall, the subtitle of the comic was "Balls to the Walls" for a reason. Seems like the film forgot that in the translation.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Elysium


South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp's first film, District 9, was applauded for how it managed to work as both an exciting sci-fi actioneer and also as an allegory for the history of apartheid in his home country. I've read some interesting discussions about the politics of Blomkamp's work and how violent and disturbing they may be. I'd hate to make the jump of assuming that his work is a reflection of his personality, but if I were, Blomkamp seems like somewhat of a nihlist. Then again (and this is what I like about his films), I realize that I come to this conclusion because of being able to live a privileged life in more ways then one. Perhaps his films strike a chord of reality for some and with his second film, Elysium, Blomkamp is working with a bigger budget and seems to be hoping to use that scale to hammer more ideas into our minds. I just don't think the allegory presented in the film pans out.

Elysium deals with class warfare, healthcare, and transhumanism (a term I wasn't even aware of until I started reading the works of comic book writer Jonathan Hickman, look him up) among other things. I don't think Blomkamp or any writer for that matter always sets out with their firmly defined themes before they start a script. Sure one must have an inkling of an idea and a story they want to tell, but sometimes the message may just spring to life naturally out of the story. The screenplays of David Webb Peoples come to mind such as Blade Runner or 12 Monkeys. Those two films can be completely admired as the most imaginative works of science-fiction, but so much about our humanity can be said in between the set pieces. My biggest problem with Elysium is that the plot just doesn't seem to sustain the metaphor for all that long. 

The movie moves pretty fast with frantic camerawork and quick editing. Before we know it the characters are moving through their paces toward the end of the story and when the film gets to its third act, I found that for all the visual originality one can find in this film, the story's conclusion just seemed illogical. [MILD SPOILERS UNFORTUNATELY] The space station Elysium is built up the entire movie to be this impenatrable fortress. Yet Kruger (Sharlto Copley) and his mercenaries are able to take over the entire station in a manner of minutes by tossing a bomb into a room (these same mercs that a former car thief was able to outsmart). Then everything just comes together so Max (Matt Damon) is able to achieve his goals coincidentally in the allotted time whereas earlier in the film it truly felt like he was having such struggle against a ticking clock.

Everything comes together in the end just for the message to come across and it almost makes the one-man sacrifice of Max's character seem less believable. I was buying the savior-complex up until the end and Matt Damon is such an excellent enough actor that he does his best to make his character seem worthy of the mission that falls before him. A shame that other characters feel one-dimensional and just serving the movie's politics such as hard-nosed administrator played by Jodie Foster, the cold business man played by William Fichtner, or the eccentric and violent gangster played by Wagner Moura. At least Sharlto Copley does steal the show quite a bit as a character of pure cruelty.

If the movie had slowed down a bit, perhaps I'd be able to admire just how well made it actually is and forgive any shortcomings of a story that wears its ideas a little too much in plain sight.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Wolverine


Being such a comic book nerd, I'd be the first to say that when it comes to super-hero titles, "team books" and "solo books" do have a different rythm to them. If handled properly any writer can make a solo character suddenly fit into the structure of a team and on the flip-side they could explore what a character that's normally part of a team does when they aren't surrounded by their peers. Wolverine is a character that does lend himself so well to both types of stories. He's fun to watch as the violent and scrappy ass-kicker of the X-Men, but he is also tortured and conflicted enough to take out his rage on those deserving all by himself. Bryan Singer and co. certainly captured the spirit of Logan very well when they introduced him as the lead character of the X-Men movie. He can't remember his past, but he can heal from any injury and due to experimentation he has a razor sharp steel alloy grafted to his skeleton (the fictional element of adamantium). 

Visually there is a lot to play with, but it also makes for an interesting psychology for an actor to delve into. If one looks at Hugh Jackman's filmography, there really isn't much before the first X-Men film. He is now an accomplished actor with excellent performances in such films as The Prestige and Les Miserables, but I'd argue that no matter what else may come, Wolverine will probably be the role he is most remembered for. His take on the character is iconic to the point where I can't imagine anyone else playing him. Batman and Superman and Spider-Man have all had other incarnations, but a non-Hugh Jackman Wolverine is pretty hard to conjure up any imagery. His embodyment of the role is just as recognizable as say Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name.

Unfortunately, I've felt that the majority of the X-Men films have been lacking in story and character. Singer certinaly cracked the code to a successful comic-book adaptation of the franchise similar to Sam Raimi with Spider-Man, but I've just come to love and enjoy what the genre had later turned into with works such as The Dark Knight or The Avengers. I actually think Matthew Vaughn told the best on-screen X-Men tale with First Class, but James Mangold's The Wolverine, despite a few flaws, can certainly sit right below the prequel film (First Class, not Origins I mean) in a ranking.

Mangold is an extremely talented director with a vast range of films (Heavy, Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, Identity, Walk the Line, and 3:10 to Yuma are some of my favorites of his). Similar to Curtis Hanson, he can really tell a variety of stories, but sometimes the screenplay he works off of might not be as fully developed, unique, or complex as one might hope (Knight and Day comes to mind). The Wolverine (based in parts on the Chris Claremont and Frank Miller 1980s miniseries) is smart in how it moves from a Japanese-set mystery to a stylized samurai action film. It features the most character development that Wolverine has seen in the past four to five films and thanks to Jackman - and supporting turns by newer actresses Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima as Logan's personal and professional partners (who hold their own against Jackman's presence) - the film has a gusto to it that's only hampered by some senseless twists and turns during the third act. Still, the odd and ultimately impersonal twist doesn't take much away from the film's enjoyment (a sequence aboard a bullet train is particularly gratifying) and this is the most fearsome and vulnerable audiences will see Wolverine... at least until the next film. I just wish it didn't take five movies to get to this interesting of a point.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pacific Rim


Being such a fan of directing, I often wonder if I'm unfairly judging movies because I'm comparing them to a director's own filmography. I've often thought that an "okay" Coen brothers movie is probably a really "good" movie for someone I feel is a lesser filmmaker. 

Guillemo Del Toro is easily one of my favorite directors; he's at least in my Top 30 (thats how nerdy I am, I have my favorite directors in a grouping of thirty). He has a wild imagination that pop-culture mavens of today would enjoy and yet is still an avid appreciator of classic works (his favorites including Frankenstein, Shadow of a Doubt, Greed, Modern Times, Nosferatu, 8 1/2, The Spirit of the Beehive). He is someone who can talk about comic books just as much as he can about H.P. Lovecraft. He is also extremely versatile, despite criticism to the contrary. Yes he might be perceived as a "genre" filmmaker who works in horror, fantasy, and science-fiction, but there is a world of difference between his independent debut Cronos and the blockbuster Hellboy or his Spanish Civil War films such as the ghost story The Devil's Backbone or the Alice-in-Wonderland-style Pan's Labyrinth and this very film, Pacific Rim. He seems to pay just as much attention and care to each aspect of his work like I feel any masterclass filmmaker should.

The reason I'm going on about Del Toro is to (1) mention how high I regard his work and (2) to get to the point that the biggest issue I had with Pacific Rim is that my own personal expectations were set against such films of his as Hellboy II, Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, and Pan's Labyrinth. This obviously isn't a problem with the film itself, but really just stating how I entered the theater with a specific mindset. That might explain how I interpreted the film.

To me, Pacific Rim seems to be about unity. It is far from a war picture. Del Toro spoke about decisions he made to avoid telling a war story and the most obvious example would be how Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) dresses. He wears something more of a suit-jacket and tie to work than camo pants. The movie features the world coming together to fight an outside force using these giant robots called Jaegers. To operate them, two pilots must have their minds melded together in an act called "the drift". The emotional through-line of the movie comes in here. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) lost his cousin when he was piloting a Jaeger years earlier and was still emotionally in tune with his cousin's mind when the loss occured. Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) was a little girl when the monster invaders known as Kaiju killed her family during a devastating attack on Japan. These two individuals must overcome their own personal loss by working together.

This might seem like a simple conceipt and frankly the film doesn't go anywhere too deep with this idea, but perhaps that is the point- a point that this film showcases quite well. Not to sound dismissive, but perhaps I shouldn't have expected too much from the 'Monsters vs. Robots' movie and just sat back and enjoyed what was in front of me, which there is quite a lot to enjoy. Like films from last year such as Prometheus and Looper (and frankly this is present in any of the great "genre" films), Del Toro uses the structure of a sci-fi action-blockbuster to deliver a message he presumably cares about to a mass audience (which it's a shame that this movie didn't click with U.S. boxoffice, but it's doing impressively well overseas). I still wish the film took a leap deeper into its own machinations, found a way to dispense with some unecessarily expository dialogue, and spent more time oogling at the creations that Del Toro came up with instead of cutting in close during the fighting. If there's one thing Del Toro is good at, it's showing us monsters- both man and otherwise.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

White House Down


I never udnerstood the phrase "turn off your brain". I see it on some message boards, comment threads, and during some movie reviews of news websites I follow. I understand what the saying refers to. It means to not take a film too seriously and sometimes certain films are just for pure entertainment value. Even then, I don't think the filmmakers wish for us to turn off our brains. If anything they still want us to read into their work. This phrase seems to be associated the most with action blockbusters and an action film's ability to make us cheer is just as valid to me as how a comedy can make us laugh or a drama can make us cry. 

Roland Emmerich's White House Down seems to be the ideal film to attach the phrase "turn off your brain", but you can actually be fully observant and still walk away from the movie feeling a sense of enjoyment.

It's a shame this film didn't meet expectations at the box office in the U.S. Like Pacific Rim, it certainly warrants a wider audience because this is the sort of the film the masses could appreciate. Maybe the gross has something to do with the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen opening up earlier this year and ironically enough, White House Down was set up before that film went into production. Having seen both, I can say that White House Down suceeds where Olympus Has Fallen does not in the sense that it doesn't take itself seriously. Emmerich seems in on the nature of the movie and like other technical masters such as Michael Bay, he is aware to not pummel the audience with a barrage of imagery, but to instead be clever with his cinematography, editing, sound design, etc. and deliver what is the ideal summer escapist blockbuster.

Visual effects aren't used to overwhelm, but to supplement. The large cast is full of great chemistry between leads Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx and a villainous turn by the always great Jason Clarke. The film is fun enough that after looking at his past works, I think this might be my favorite film from Emmerich. One might scoff 'that aint saying much', but in this case I'm more than happy to admit it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Last Stand


The Last Stand is one of the better intentional B-movies probably at least since Robert Rodriguez's satirical Machete. However, the film directed by Kim Ji-woon and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is not much of a parody as one might expect from the promos and trailers, but more an ode and update to the types of action films that Schwarzengger had made earlier in his career.

The movie has some tense bits sprinkled throughout and then explodes in fun chaos at the end. There is bloody carnage, but not with too much extra grittiness that one has come to expect in post-9/11 action movies (such as in recently mentioned films like The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins, Casino Royale). If anything this is a much better success at what I feel Stallone was trying to achieve with his first Expendables movie. It's part camp and then there's still a sense of the modern, especially due to the stylization of the material by its director, Kim Ji-woon. Kim is one of three South Korean new-wave directors to be making an english-language film this year (Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer and Park Chan-wook's Stoker are the other two). I'd be lying if I said I'm surprised Kim has chosen to make an action film in comparison to his fellows taking on what is deemed to be more "serious" material. Then again, it's a great way to perhaps introduce Kim to mainstream Western audiences. His camera constantly stays with the action through long takes such as Cortez's escape down a ziplane or when the same character is driving a fast car through a roadblock. The editing is also very quick and is reminscent of scenes from Kim's previous films the such as the ridiculously fun western The Good, The Bad, The Weird and one of the few revenge films to rival Oldboy, I Saw the Devil.

Something I didn't care for and that could be found in films attributed to Schwarzenegger, is the sudden  attempts at humor as it sometimes fall flat. Examples include Johnny Knoxville's character's antics with guns or even just at the end of the film when Schwarzenegger delivers a punchline and then walks back with his deputies with an "aw shucks" sort of demeanor. Kim has made this sort of humor work in his films before, but here it just felt out of place for me. I think it's not so much because the film can't decide what it wants to be, but because I wasn't sure what I wanted the film to be. A sometimes campy actioneer? A bloody thriller? Something else? Regardless I can say that the a majority of the movie still seemed average as opposed to something that is 100% unique.

Ultimately, the film provides a lot of escapism and most importantly, Schwarzenegger's screen presence hasn't dissipated to as large a degree as one might have thought.

The Lone Ranger


General consensus on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise starring Johnny Depp seems to be that the first film was a lot of fun featuring a great performance by Depp, but the sequels failed to live up to expectations. They were deemed long, unnecessary, and bloated. Director Gore Verbinski who directed the beloved first installment and the second and third chapter, has re-teamed with Depp, Disney, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer on a new property- a big screen version of the Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, this film is more in line with the Pirates sequels. I personally don't hold the first Pirates film in that high of a regard as others might, but there is no denying the charisma and panache that Depp unleashed as pirate Jack Sparrow. For the sequels, I wanted to see more of Jack and although I got my wish, the filmmakers piled on such unnecessary side-plots and convoluted events and dialogue that have led me to wish the franchise would stop making money so it could just go away quietly (both thanks to the two sequels directed by Verbinski and the fourth film that was directed by Rob Marshall, a fifth film is forthcoming).

If the saving grace of any of the Pirates film could be Johnny Depp's acting, then I was hoping at least performance would carry The Lone Ranger should the plot be what I mentioned above (long, bloated etc.). Unfortunately, perhaps without a previous film as a starting point or blueprint, the cast of Ranger feels weighed down and constrained in their performances because of the hefty amount of plotting. The actors seem to occupy their space and not do anything with it, which is a shame because the idea to have the marquee name of Depp in a supporting role and instead have Armie Hammer in the lead role is pretty ingenius. I recognize Hammer from The Social Network and J. Edgar, but larger audiences might not be all that familiar with him so it lends the authenticity of a "new face" that I've mentioned here before (most recently in reference to Man of Steel). Plus, Tonto is probably the most fun of the two to play. Depp's Tonto is more of a strict and controlled Jack Sparrow, but undeniably the type of free-willing character that Depp is known to play.

It's also not that Depp and Hammer have a lack of chemistry, but due to a dense conspiracy plot, I feel like the audience isn't allowed to appreciate the relationships between the various characters. Despite all of the overkill, Verbinski certainly demonstrates that he can once again direct large-scale sequences. The final sequence aboard the trains is remarkable and feels as fun as any of the scenes from Curse of the Black Pearl or Rango. Should Steven Spielberg ever give up the reigns to Indiana Jones, I would think Verbinski would be the perfect choice to replace him, assuming he could get a manageable script.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

This Is the End


Outrageous. Hilarious. Ambitious. Smart. Original. Best comedy of the year. These have all probably been uttered in some reviews for the film and I'd have to agree with all of the praise. This Is the End is the sort demented movie that I'd find ingenious. I've been such a huge fan of Judd Apatow and his alum's style and brand of humor. You can cast the net wide to include many filmmakers under his umbrella and frankly, they've all been open about what has inspired them thus to say that they aren't so much as trailblazers as they are re-imagining and re-interpreting the humor that informed their own tastes. Come to think of it, some of my favorite comedies have been from the past ten or so years- The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Apatow), Knocked Up (2005, Apatow), Tropic Thunder (2008, Stiller), I Love You Man (2009, Hamburg), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008, Smith), Pineapple Express (2008, Green), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Stoller), The Five-Year Engagement (2012, Stoller), The Hangover (2009, Phillips), Role Models (2008, Wain), The Foot Fist Way (2007, Hill), Anchorman (2004, McKay), Talladega Nights (2006, McKay), Step Brothers (2008, McKay), The Other Guys (2010, McKay), Superbad (2007, Mottola), Walk Hard (2007, Kasdan), Bridesmaids (2011, Feig), Borat (2006, Charles), Bruno (2009, Charles) etc. all liked to varying degrees of course.

Maybe some would agree with me while others might think I'm being low-brow, too generous towards a popular trend, or even just insane. Putting all that aside, I'm a huge fan of many of these performers and to see them all play and lampoon themselves was a neat treat, but ultimately directors/writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg one-up their concept by taking it from gimmick to... well something else that shouldn't be put into words but can only be alluded to. 

The gag of this being like a crazy episode of Entourage (a show whose creator has feuded with Rogen coincidently enough) doesn't run out in minutes. Instead the film almost unkowingly breaks a fourth wall of sorts to transcend that expectation. The best comparion I can think of is to another brilliant comedy, that being Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead. Wright often tells a story about deep relationships that is then placed in the realm of some sort of genre. Wright has used zombies, buddy cop movies, and alien invasions and here Rogen uses the apocalypse (which has been a popular concept in movies and especially television in recent years).

Similar to their screenplays to Superbad and Pineapple Express, This Is the End suddenly has these "awwww" moments with there being actual character development. Thankfully, Rogen and Goldberg also realize that development can be really, really, really, really, really funny.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

World War Z


My biggest issue with World War Z was how incredibly tame it felt. There are several responses to the film that mention how even with a PG-13 rating that the film is still incredibly intense and thrilling. I'd have to disagree and I would rather use the word entertaining.

The novel by Max Brooks (son of filmmaker Mel) is subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War". The book is a series of individual collections and accounts as a member of the United Nations postwar commission attempts to gather information through oral interviews and other documents. For the purposes of the movie, the plot has been changed to follow a United Nations investigator named Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) who experiences the zombie breakout firsthand. The scale of this film is impressive and is rarely seen in zombie films which often take place in contained scenarios and here this film moves from the U.S. to South Korea to Jerusalem to the British isles. I do have to compliment the filmmakers' abilities to adapt such challenging material because the movie does capture some of the themes present in the original source novel such as how conflict changes social, religious, political, and environmental landscapes. Brad Pitt is commanding in a very 'typical leading-man in a PG-13 summer action blockbuster movie role' sort of way. He is capable of better performances, but this seems to be just more of a safe role for him and it does speak to how tame the movie is.

Yes it's ultimately a good movie, but it could be more intense. It could be more scary. It tries to be a different type of zombie movie, but it's basically the blockbuster version of 28 Days Later and packs nowhere near as much of an emotional wallop as that movie does. The versatile director Marc Forster (who according to the press had a troubled shoot with this film) does a great job of relating the zombie epidemic to the times we are in with chaos, war, and economic turmoil. Yet, as fun as the movie can be, it certainly needs something more than a metaphor to warrant the praise I feel others have been giving it.

Man of Steel


Time for some random ramblings, but first, "who do you like more, Superman or Batman?" Many have complained about Superman being a boy scout. That he's boring and just can't compare to grittier characters such as Bruce Wayne's alter-ego. My own tastes do tend towards the darker characters. I find that the hero who is more tortured and goes through the proverbial rabbit hole will come out the other end as a stronger individual against his or her challenges. Heck, one of if not my favorite movie Schindler's List features evil incarnate in the form of Amon Goeth thus making Oskar Schindler more compelling because he is a hero who doesn't realize that he is even the least bit heroic to combat such cruelty. To use characters from the same genre as that of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel- audiences prefer their Jason Bourne's, Daniel Craig's James Bond, and Christian Bale's Batman and on TV we like Walter White, Jax Teller, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper. So does that mean in the mainstream film/TV climate I just described that other characters should be written off because they are too shiny or heroic?

.....

I remember when I first started reading comics at the age of 9, I started out reading purely because of the characters. Then I learned after reading a really good Spider-Man comic and a really bad Spider-Man comic from two different creative teams, that there was no such thing as a bad character, only a bad writer. Not to take the passion away from or denounce the fans that will pick up every X-Men comic simply because it is an X-Men comic, but ultimately any fictional character can be made interesting (obvious observation, but I'll mention it nonetheless). I've read incredible Superman stories and not-so incredible ones. Screenwriter David Goyer, Christopher Nolan's (who is also a producer on this film) writing collaborator for his Batman trilogy, has very obviously decided to infuse Superman with some grit. I'm not against that (as I mentioned, I read Superman stories of all sorts, some with darker tones), but I think the approach to concentrating on Kal-El's tortured soul didn't need to include a lot of what was ultimately chosen to be included in Man of Steel.

I enjoyed Snyder's Dawn of the Dead and Legend of the Guardians and I feel Man of Steel is certainly better than 300, Watchmen, or Sucker Punch. He is a capable filmmaker in that he understands he deals with a visual medium, but even at his best I find him to be heavy-handed. Not just because of the slo-motion everyone loves to place him in a corner for, but just in how he conveys the script's events. Man of Steel is full of a lot of action that certainly makes up for Bryan Singer's passive Superman Returns. Yet at a certain point, the action becomes joyless and endless and full of carnage that could only exist with post-9/11 imagery. I hate to sound like the hoighty-toighty movie nerd, but I truly did enjoy the quieter scenes in this film more than Superman just pummeling Zod. Even when they were fighting, what they were saying was something I wanted to see be explored more than the trading of punches.

Superman can also do what many consider to be the coolest and most wish fulfilling superpower of all time- he can fly. The moment when Superman first takes flight in Man of Steel is wonderous and handled well from the cinematography to the booming score by Hans Zimmer. The fighting in Smallville and Metropolis just didn't capture that wonder for me. Maybe that is where people get annoyed at Superman. They want to see him be a badass and nothing is less badass than a man having a zen-like moment as he hovers above the ground. It's cool, but fans (and myself included) could care less whether Batman can jump really high as long as he's kicking ass at the same time. The film also tries to work in Superman's backstory from Krypton as a major point of the villain's plot and although it creates an emmotionally tense atmosphere, I can't help but feel it was a convoluted way to bring the story full circle and over-complicate Zod's conquer-all scheme.

Now, I'm mentioning a lot of the negative and I'm only really doing so because it's the easiest to write the most about, but on the positive side- I can't stress how well-acted this film is. For any of the typical tropes of the blockbuster action-movie genre, this film was at least a testament to how just having a damn good cast can elevate the material. Henry Cavill (The Tudors, Immortals) probably gives the best acting performance as Superman on-screen. The emotion he brings to the controversial ending and throughout (especially in flashback scenes involving his upbringing) makes this on-screen version of Superman the most fully formed version there's been. The idea of going with a lesser known actor for such a role does work and it not only makes the performance but the character's arc feel relevatory. The chemistry with Amy Adams' Lois Lane might be lacking the expected 'oomph', but it wasn't as bad as I felt some reviewers were making the relationship out to be. Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe all also have some incredible moments, but it's Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road) who steals the show.

Zod is such a great villain. He was the brawn to Jor-El's brain and he was sent into an empty void for years because his dedication to his own people was not shared by others. The man therefore embarks on a potential blood feud with the son of his enemy, a young man who doesn't even know his place in the world yet. There's a lot to play with there and Shannon finds every faucet of Zod's character to explore and expose in his performance.

Now back to the grit. I'm not against it, but I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to see the other side. Jeff Jenson recently wrote a great article for Entertainment Weekly about anti-heroes and he pointed out Don Draper's arc on AMC's Mad Men this past season. Don is the biggest dick in the world on that show. He is the villain of his own story like Michael Corleone. He sunk so far this past year and was duely punished for it. So what does he go and do? He shows his shame to his kids in the final moments of the season finale. It spoke a lot more to me than just having him delve deeper into darkness. 

Cue that Aaron Eckhart quote from The Dark Knight about darkness before a very bright dawn.

.....

Now as a fun extra, here are some of my favorite Superman stories that I read as they came out.

-Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu
-Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen
-Mark Millar's Red Son miniseries
-Jeph Loeb's run on Superman/Batman (Public Enemies, Supergirl, Absolute Power, and Vengeance)
-Busiek/Johns' Superman/Action Comics crossover Up, Up, and Away
-Kurt Busiek's Camelot Falls
-The Geoff Johns run on Action Comics (Last Son, Escape from Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Heroes, Brainiac, the Secret Origin miniseries)
-JMS's recent Earth-One graphic novels
-Grant Morrison's Action Comics relaunch
-Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis have some great Superman moments
-The greatest Superman story ever- All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Monsters University


When I think of Pixar, which is practically a brand name for me and so many others, Monsters Inc. holds an unique place in my appreciation for the company. Whereas the older I am, the more I appreciate the message and filmmaking present in Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up; Monsters Inc. really just feels like unabashed fun. The movie's concept and gags always felt like they were at the forefront, but that isn't to say there was a heartwarming theme below its surface. Monsters University is very similar in that regard. It's a lot of fun and it covers a lot of demographics (for lack of a better word) by being a family film that also has jokes that relate to the college experience. You could see this movie play well with a younger audience, but I'm sure the gurus at Pixar realized that the crowd that fell in love with Mike and Scully back in 2001 are probably now in college or have graduated. I only bring this up because this applies to my group of friends and I, but also based on word-of-mouth reactions that I've heard, a lot of other people as well.

The film is funny and is a mix of what a perfect prequel or sequel should be- something new with enough of the familiar touchstones for us to remember why we loved the original in the first place. The movie also has quite an ecclectic voice cast and it was great to see so many supporting players also be fully formed characters.

In short, it sits right next to Monsters Inc. if I were to evaluate and rank the Pixar canon, but that's not a bad thing by any means.