Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
the short for College Humor.
Maybe my over-enthusiasm is the result of walking into the theater with my expectations flat-lined at zero, but I found myself hooked and legitimately enjoying what The Wolverine had to offer from the very early scenes. We're moving completely away from the landscape of Xavier's School and the ongoing battle for mutant civil rights. Where the X-Men on the whole are great largely because of the way they tackle the subject of what it means to be human, The Wolverine steps away from grand battles and moves momentarily on to a personal stage. Just as a step towards personal reconciling proved successful in Iron Man 3, Wolverine makes great strides when stripped of some of the persecution and rebellion aspects, and when we begin to explore aspects of Logan's militaristic sense of responsibility and duty. It has the self-possession of a standalone film, though trickles of past-history find there way in. We are reintroduced to Logan as a wild man in self-imposed exile. He's having a sort of existential crisis, blaming himself for the terrible things that have befallen people he has loved, and is visited nightly by the dream-ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Jansseen). His wilderness funk is interrupted by the arrival of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a confident young girl sent to bring him back with her to Japan. She 'works' for a man Logan once knew, a wholly human Japanese soldier named Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) who Logan once saved in the dregs of WW2. Yashida has gone on to become one of the most powerful men in his country. He wants to say goodbye to his former savior, Logan has no scheduled conflicts.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
There's a small corner of my DVD collection accidentally devoted to collaborations between director Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan. All three of 'em start with T's (or numbers spelled with T's) and are filed away within inches of one another: The Trip, Tristram Shandy, and 24 Hour Party People. I love these films, I love Coogan in these films, I respect Winterbottom because of his involvement with these films (specifically). Consequently, I was prepared to like The Look of Love quite a bit. Coogan and Winterbottom tend to be a productive creative pairing, and the prospect of a period comedy following a real life sleaze impresario sounded pretty spectacular, but the results are lackluster; jumbled, stretched, and -even with dozens of prancing showgirls- bland. Maybe they're cursed by snubbing the letter 'T', maybe they need a Rob Brydon cameo as a good luck charm, or, you know, maybe they really needed to just fix up the script and keep their eyes on the story and not the pinups.
Friday, July 19, 2013
My friend, perhaps you have noticed: it is hot. Terribly so. You must escape. Your outdoor lifestyle, the beach, the pool, these things are crowded and stifle your air. You must go to the ice box of the theater, yes, and when you do, you must do yourself a favor: this time, bet against your summer action fatigue and go see Pacific Rim. Pay the 3D prices, consider springing for the IMAX upgrade. I know, I know, you're one of those people who's been burned before. We've all been there, my friend. You used to like the idea of titans battling one another on city streets, of Godzilla-like mutated monsters emerging from the ocean, but the disasters just got too noisy, the plots too incomprehensible. Things have been bleak, haven't they? The Man of Steel pounds through skyscrapers and lets the innocent die, Transformers is just a long commercial for the American auto industry...you don't even know how to explain the events depicted in Battleship. You're tired, my friend. Weary. Jaded. Your entertainments do not entertain, but belittle and pummel, they drain you of your strength and kill brain cells in the hundreds. My friend, Pacific Rim is a treatment for this. A salve, a balm, perhaps. Not a cure, no, but something to help partially restore your waning faith in the standalone summer blockbuster.
Pacific Rim plays with the operable cliches of its mutated sci-fi chromosomes and goes big on the battles, but for real reasons. The premise is that Earth has long been trying to stave off an intruding race of alien beings who emerge -unexpectedly and with the force of natural disasters - from the ocean floor. The beings are massive, monstrous organic destroyers the humans have named "kaiju" (Japanese for Giant Beast), and though their exact point of entry has been identified, closing it has proved impossible. The film offers up a well-executed, slick prologue explaining the state of the couple decades since the first attack. We learn that the most successful military program (and the one safest for the continuation of human life) had been to build armored robot-like vehicles as large as the kaiju themselves. The machines are called Jaegers, and though they sell action figures, they are weaponized-vehicles first and not characters in the conventional sense of the term. Jaeger pilots work in teams and are hooked into one another's neural paths to merge and control the devices more effectively, and as they save cities in the most bad ass way imaginable: they are pop cultural rock stars. Our point of entry into the story is one such pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a shaggy-haired good guy who cut his career short when he experienced his brother's death by Kaiju during a merged battle. The stakes, though, are getting higher, the Kaiju are getting smarter, and the recently-retired Jaeger initiative needs its best and brightest back at the helm. Yes, there's something refreshing about being able to explain that without doubt.
We've got our would-be GI Joe, check, but he's curiously selfless (and boring) instead of cocky.
Female lead Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is also bland, but at least she's got brains, skill, and brawn without a gratuitous costume or a bunch of half-smiled come ons. Military gentleman Pentecost (Elba) is an attentive, team-playing realist (and stand-in for the 'black president' trope?) who actually does listen to the little guy instead of ignoring all signs until the last go. And our neurotic scientist is a little less straight-laced, a little more spastic, tattooed, devil-may-care wiseass (yep, Charlie Day) who, interestingly, is rarely the smartest guy in the room. They're all caricatures, yes, and the acting leaves much to be desired, but in a way that means Del Toro isn't bogging down the big story with the weak attempts at pathos so many throw down to redirect the plot. It's passable, and honestly, if you're going to this movie to care about the humans, you're in it for the wrong damn reason. What you need to know: things come together, and all of it happens in an ascending, pleasing order. Battles get progressively bigger, more is at stake, sometimes characters actually die. Let's not forget the best part...
Labels: Only God Forgives
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Saturday, July 13, 2013
With Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon blurs the line between home movie and independent film with a too-saccharine mix of results. The cult director steps away from writing his own cheeky banter and tests out what happens when his friends and regulars recite Elizabethan verse, moving Shakespeare's comedic battle of the sexes from Sicily to Santa Monica, and filming it in and around his own estate. It's an adjustment that takes some getting used to, and which at first reads as blearily contrived and poorly adapted. The opening scenes, introducing sharply suited Americans nasally play-acting through talk of Princes, battles, etc, are tough to swallow. The approach has Whedon's finger-prints all over it; too self-aware, too cheeky, too playful to sit with the play's occasional dalliances with gravity. Whedonites - the sort who giggle at every grimace on Nathan Fillion's face - will love it for its homespun charm. Those hoping for the ferocity of Shakespeare's words to match up with the approach, though, may find themselves idly wondering how many members of the audience are regular patrons of the Rennaissance Faire...
Whedon's take on Much Ado is modern, but not current. Everything about the mise-en-scene and characterization suggests in a twee netherworld of snappy suits, platform wedges, expansive kitchen counters, plush toys, and masquerade parties with acrobats lithely gyrating to music that sounds like it should be sold in a Starbucks. It's like the pages of an Anthropologie catalog blended have been decoupaged with some collage of Hollywood screwball influences Whedon thought might be similar, but didn't commit to applying. Our characters are, of course, almost all houseguests on board for a booze-hounding stay of shenanigans and love matches, and this is perhaps the general reason why Whedon thought it would be fun to shoot the film with his fast-talking bit players. Because, I mean, it's only natural that a bunch of drunk people would construct a scheme to get two sworn enemies to fall in love, right? That part makes sense.
What makes slightly less sense are all the cloying little touches, like, why wouldn't you have Claudio standing idly in an infinity pool holding a martini glass with a snorkel on his face? Why wouldn't you have soliloquies set in a little girl's bedroom? What, in actuality, is the black and white adding to the film (a touch of the antiquated? It certainly doesn't work the way it does in Frances Ha)? Ultimately, the whole thing reads as a sort of "lite rock" or "adult contemporary" adaptation, the sort of thing designed for yuppies to watch at an outdoor picnic in the park while sipping on pinot grigio and cutting into wheels of brie. I'm not kidding: look around at the decor as you're watching the film. There are little goose knickknacks, laundry hampers, astonishingly tepid art fair paintings. The whole thing looks steeped in an upper middle class banality that renders the situation sort of stupid, stilted, and cheesy. Beatrice (Amy Acker, of "Angel" and "Dollhouse") and Benedick (Alexis Denisof, of a similar pedigree) are given their share of amusing moments, but their relationship feels drained and distant, nowhere close to making the most of the sharp-tongued exchanges on the page.
Frankly, it's tough to buy into Beatrice and Benedick as the ferocious independent minds they're meant to be. Here, the situation seems too obvious and immediate. Whedon doesn't seem interested in giving us a taste of their lives just off-screen, but simply makes them in to talking heads spitting claims they seem too happy about to believe. Because the tone shallowly pulls from fluffier, more contemporary rom coms instead of the material, the turn the play takes involving Hero's (Jillian Morgese) pretend death in Act IV sends the film into tedium. We're not ready for the possibility of serious consequences, and so all Whedon can do is head up the goon squad with an overcooked Nathan Fillion. The Firefly obsessives laugh, I roll my eyes and wonder why nobody's offered me any ciabatta bread or caprese salad. Which is to say: it's a likable enough adaptation, but a weak (and occasionally annoying) one that feels more like an actual home movie than perhaps it should.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
If you're human and you saw the first Despicable Me film, chances are you found yourself both charmed and pleasantly surprised. If you're ready for that to happen again, Despicable Me 2 doesn't disappoint. As a sequel, it matches up evenly with the original and provides more of the same while adding just enough to keep things fresh: Gru is still surly, the girls are still cute, the minions don't wear out their welcome. The Despicable franchise seems to have a knack for finding the sweet spot right between candy floss fluff and Saturday morning action heroes; it locates exactly the thing your inner child still loves about that old piece of nostalgia and plays to it, wooing you with all the bells, whistles, and gadgets it has at its disposal. It's a seamless, slick, fast-talking piece of work, a little bit pre-fab, sure, but as an animated comedy? Hard to argue with the results.
Flimsiness aside, there's something illogically logical about the fun in Despicable Me 2, so much so that when you find yourself giggling to a minion rendition of "YMCA" it doesn't matter how many low-brow past kids movies it calls to mind: it just makes sense. Despicable Me is pure comedy, and pure cartoon. It's light, frothy, and fun in the spare way that comedies tend to be. You laugh, it works, that's all there is to it. The characters click. Gru's world is such that utter nonsense arises organically, and so we have no trouble believing it when it does.
Monday, July 1, 2013
I really don't want to talk about The Heat as some sort of feminist moment. It's not the film that's going to sweep in and reconfigure the playing field, it's just a summer action comedy: a 21 Jump Street, a This is the End, a Hot Fuzz, a The Other Guys. The only difference is that this time there are two ladies over 40 in place of a few raunchy dudes, and for some reason, this seems to change the evaluation criteria for a straight, uncomplicated comedy. Box office reporters for the weekend were stunned by the film's "surprise" clout in the face of muscular White House Down, noting its supposed "female-centricness" as reason for their shrug. Professional critics, too, have largely devalued The Heat's humor, focusing too much on determining its rate of failure or success according to strange, irrelevant factors like whether or not it 'does anything different' from a "guy" film, or, how shrill its characters are (No, seriously, the Village Voice write-up is actually called "The Heat Would Be More Likable If It Stopped Yelling Everything"). Every article on the film seems to open up with a note on how much raw estrogen is in the film, making careful note of the impact of Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig's last team-up, Bridesmaids. Suddenly, The Heat can't merely be entertaining, it has to be game-changing. Suddenly, it's about 'empowerment', 'feminism', being 'woman-centric' but somehow? Apparently it's failing, because, well, if you listen to critics: it's just like yet another one of those reductive 'guy-oriented' comedies. You know...thin on plot and mostly just built around the two actors riffing off one another through a series of off-color jokes.
So unheard of, right? As McCarthy's character might put it: fuck that.
Sure, if we're counting plot tropes, there's nothing really new about The Heat. Straight-laced, prim n' snotty FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is sent to Boston in pursuit of a local drug-lord. Problem is, to close the case she'll need to learn to work with irascible, foul-mouthed detective Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a woman who's made it her job to take the city by the balls. Along the way, all manner of expected turns, chases, and undercover sight gags are brought in to play. Mullins is the 'bad' cop, Ashburn is the 'good' one. Mullins does things unconventionally, Ashburn follows the book. So it is, right? That's the thing about genres and subgenres, the beauty is in the little differences and subtle variations. In The Heat those variations do not come necessarily in the form of actively attempting to serve as some sort of failed 'feminist moment', but instead in watching Bullock and McCarthy themselves. Bullock gets to play with the Miss Congeniality casting that made her one of America's sweethearts, sure, but when you blend that with Melissa McCarthy's knack for uncomfortable, volatile comedy...you've got something. McCarthy is brilliantly uncouth here. She amplifies everything about her Bridesmaids character and gives us a confident, comfortable, tough-as-nails loudmouth who could hold her own in just about any cinematic PD anywhere. Mullins is great, but Mullins is made greater by Ashburn.
The Heat may not be a game-changing breakthrough for a new, feminist mode of filmmaking, but it's certainly not a step in the wrong direction. As NPR's Linda Holmes recently noted in her piece "At the Movies, The Women Are Gone", there's a noticeable absence of female protagonists on the screen this summer. That's a problem, and it's one movies like The Heat can work to alleviate. Box office numbers don't lie: we love a good dumb comedy, and this is something Hollywood has too frequently been reluctant to give us without big-name dudes. Our lady-starring comedic landscape has been largely populated by insipid rom coms and often vapidly mean-spirited 'competitions' (Bachelorette, The House Bunny). The Heat is neither of those, and, come on: it's admittedly rather refreshing to see two comedic actresses in their prime work together, take charge, and own it.
I can believe that some may not be amused by The Heat, but I have a hard time buying that it's somehow less effective than a wealth of other buddy comedies before it. The Heat landed at a 62% on Rotten Tomatoes where many other formula twists (all solid comedies, too) succeeded. Look at this RT percentages and tell me there's not something off here:
The Other Guys: 78%
21 Jump Street: 85%
This is the End: 84%
Hot Fuzz: 91%?
The ideas, though, are conceptually frightening, and if Marc Forster and Plan B have succeeded in anything, it's using a global claustrophobia to its adrenaline-pumping advantage. Z spins into near immediate action, briefly introducing us to Gerry and Karin Lane's (Pitt and The Killing's Mireille Enos, respectively) happy, nuclear family before thrusting them into an urban hellscape. Gerry is a sort of United Nations action figure, a guy who used to get dropped into the third world war zones for a living. Experiencing the sudden arrival of those conditions in his native land, however? That's a slightly different story. Still, he's the man for the job: a survivor, one of the only people still at the government's disposal. And so, the Lane's are airlifted to safety in exchange for Gerry's immediate departure on a planet-hopping suicide mission to dig up Patient Zero. If he can guide a promising young doctor on a quest for a cure, humanity may still have some hope.