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


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.