Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Late Night Trailers: American Hustle

This is the trailer for American Hustle. It's mostly devoid of dialogue, and yet it speaks for itself. So, I'm going to leave it at this: it's a David O. Russell movie starring the 'best of' recent David O. Russell casts in a 1970s wonderland of sleazy, tawdry excess.  Words cannot describe how all about this trailer I am.  I would say it is everything, but I don't care for that expression. Still, it is everything. Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Robert De Niro, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK, and some hella serious hair.  We've gotta wait til December, people. It's gonna be tough...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Like: The To Do List

It's pretty likely that The To Do List will hold a place in cult comedy round-ups for years to come, and that as many people will love it as loathe it.  It's one of those just barely over-the-top summer ensemble pieces near custom built for derision, a sort of Wet Hot American Summer-type affair with a cast pulled from every TV show on a comedy geek's short list of favorites. Nearly everything about it sounds awesome: Aubrey Plaza unlocks the lead actress achievement, it's a lady-centric sex comedy about a smart girl taking control of her own shit, and, again, the cast boasts a solid line-up of characters.  It sounded like a near sure thing.  Plaza's character Brandy Klark is the tightly-wound 1993 high school valedictorian. After being taunted for her virgin status during graduation, Brandy rips her old list of goals from her tropical trapper keeper and, aided by her trampy older sister (Rachel Bilson), maps out a new summer plan of sexual exploration.  Before going to college, Brandy hopes to have tried her hand at everything from hand jobs to dry humping to full on intercourse (with the town stud, of course). Like the nature of her to-do list itself, though, Brandy's story is somehow better on paper than it is in practice.
The To Do List kicks things off with a tremendous amount of promise.  One of its great strengths is its attentiveness to evoking a near constant 90s nostalgia via its mise en scene. The tour of Brandy's 1993 bedroom in the opening credits (set to "Me So Horny") is fabulously out of date, and the genuine disinterest in taking on the story post-internet works heartily to the story's advantage. This is a time of scrunchies, crop tops, and Jason Priestley posters - not of Snapchat, Tumblr, or any degree of sexting. Everything has to be done the "old fashioned" way, and in scrawling out a hand written list of foreign sounding challenges ("Teabagging. Must be British?") without access to the wide, frightening world of internet porn, Brandy has her work beyond cut out for her.  This is the concept that makes the movie funny at its best moments, but also part of its downfall.  The To Do List is repetitive and relies too heavily on a concept instead of actually writing enough jokes for its run-time. The way it pans out is basically like so: Brandy writes the list, Brandy works on executing the list, we watch Brandy stumble through it.  If you start to imagine how awkward one sexual act is in your average teen comedy, think about how old it could get watching a film where the premise is an unending series of that same fumbling.
To an extent: it is funny. More often than not, there's something quaint and charming about The To Do List.  Amid all the graphic conversation, off-color sex jokes, and bodily functions, the movie manages to fall on the side of too cute in ways that can't be explained.  All well and fine, but the cuteness clashes with some immediacy against the movie's desperate need to push its gross-out, bodily humor to a place where it's more shocking or repulsive than funny. There's some nasty ass business in this sex comedy. Like, a pool scene that steps into Pink Flamingos/Divine territory with zeal.  The moods are so extreme that the jokes and story just can't keep up, and the whole thing seems trapped in this place where it's trying to prove something it shouldn't have to. Frankly, it'd be a better, smarter movie if it played out with a character more like the live-action Daria Plaza played so effectively in the short for College Humor.
Which brings us to a sad truth: Plaza isn't that great as Brandy. While she steps away from the deadpan box of Parks and Recreation and wears the gawky teen guise well, she's a bit rigid and there's something in her eyes that belies crucial aspects of her character. When she needs to look more naive, when we need to feel some sort of empathy for her, we can't.  The reason why she works so well playing April on TV is exactly why she doesn't quite hit the mark with Brandy: she looks like she's in control when she shouldn't, like she's smirking when she's meant to be embarrassed. A secondary problem is, of course, that the writing doesn't really allow Brandy to have as much dimension as she should.  The awkward, proud nerd we meet early in the film doesn't come across as the risk taker Brandy is quickly established as being, and the further she gets into her list, the more unbelievably stupid her behavior becomes. She's an uneven character in an uneven film, and though there's much that's entertaining throughout, The To Do List just doesn't meet its goals.

Love: The Wolverine

One of the most interesting elements of our recyclable pop culture landscape is the rate at which we've begun to parse through the same material.  While in most cases that means raw repetition and a reliance on the jukebox musical, Marvel has been using it as means of time travel. They're taking their various properties and allowing them to be rebooted and retried in apparently endless perpetuity. We're slowly working towards correcting the insufferable Spider-Man 3, for example, but the mishandling of certain installments of The X-Men franchise present far more pressing reasons to turn back the clock.  For the average fan, X-Men: The Last Stand was a disappointing travesty, but compared to 2009's stupidly titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine?  It was a triumph. 2009's origin film was an embarrassing mess that seemed proof of 20th Century Fox's desperate need to give up the superhero film and hand the property rights over in full to Disney Corporate. With piss poor CG graphics, weak attempts to introduce new characters, a script filled with logical inconsistencies, and way too many shots of Hugh Jackman screaming at the sky; it seemed like the end for X-Men, the old class.
For whatever reason, though, Marvel and Fox are invested in the idea of keeping Hugh Jackman in the Wolverine get-up no matter what, and after a brief, gruff cameo made a big impact in the largely successful X-Men First Class, someone put two and two together and wisely intuited that what we wanted was more sass, more anger, less moping.  So, just a few years after X-Men Origins, the slate has been wiped clean.  The time for origin stories has passed, we know the characters well enough and we want to see what happens after the films we love, not before. The Wolverine is a best case scenario in Marvel's recycling efforts. Everything wrong with the origin story has been corrected from the title on down: the character has been stabilized, the story takes priority, the graphics have been cared for, and Jackman actually gets a chance to pour that penchant for stone-faced struggle into something other than howling with his claws up.  In what may easily qualify as one of the biggest surprises of 2013, The Wolverine's biggest victory is its win against audience exasperation: it's a good movie, a really good movie. When the lights came up, I went so far as to declare it the strongest entry in the X-Men series.  
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.    
In Japan, our hero is forced quickly out of his comfort zone. Yashida makes him an offer that confounds him, but before he has the opportunity to appropriately respond, the film rushes quickly into human-scale action sequences. It turns out that Yashida's power has negatively impacted the life of his biological granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and she is being threatened by yakuza thugs.  For most of the film, we're in a reasonable approximation of reality: wolverine vs. the Yakuza, Wolverine in an awesome train top battle, Wolverine standing guard at a love hotel, Wolverine bleeding.  It's a weirdly elegant turn away from the repetitive formula of past X-Men films, and the result is refreshing, believable, and capable.  Though things twist towards the over-the-top cartoonish in the final sequences (Viper is totes like Marvel's answer to Poison Ivy, yeah?), it's all forgivable good fun.  The Wolverine can do that, you see. It still has the playfulness of a Marvel venture, even as it darkens its tone and lets its hero work through serious issues.  You leave wanting to see where the series goes next, believing in redemption, and convinced that someone at Marvel was absolutely brilliant in their stubborn refusal to ditch Hugh Jackman.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Squalor: The Look of Love

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.
The script loses focus quickly, drifting off course into handsome visuals, rich costuming, and small moments in a dramatic tableaux instead of actively accounting for its protagonist.  We're swept along through several decades in the life of Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), a controversial millionaire entrepreneur playboy who's presented as the UK's answer to Hugh Hefner.  From burlesque acts to publishing exploits, we're made privy to the rise of a raunch-culture god.  Now, as mentioned, I'd not heard of Raymond prior to watching the film, and have no way of accurately gauging whether or not The Look of Love hits on something positive or negative in interpreting Raymond's persona. What I do know, though, is that the film opts for a point of entry that proves problematic.  Look of Love is bookended by the premature death of Raymond's troubled daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). In the opening minutes we meet a middle aged Raymond as he grapples with the loss, and throughout the film we return time and again to strange, tonally off-putting reminders that her struggles with addiction will end badly, that he is at least partially responsible, and that our tale has a tragic end.  When that's hanging over the story, it's a bit tough to keep swinging.
But, see, that's the problem with The Look of Love. It's too dramatic to be a comedy, too airy to be a drama, too cut-up to be a solid story.  There's no way to cut Debbie out of the film, and she needs to be there to make Paul Raymond at all a sympathetic figure. Paul and Debbie are an unconventional, unhealthy example of a father/daughter relationship.  Paul does little to intervene in Debbie's destructive decision making, and the two frequently party together. In fact, he draws her wholly into his world. In his nudie stage-shows, she's the clothed "star": innocent, weirdly wholesome, but entombed in a backstage life of coke, promiscuity, and (let's face it) screwed up perceptions of how relationships work between men and women.  Winterbottom does his best to find meaning in Debbie and Paul's familial bond. They're close friends, proud to share blood, and Debbie makes much of her father's prominent place in her life. So, what we get is a film that turns into this weird daddy/daughter biopic about an enterprising asshole's guilt-trip in the wake of his daughter's demise. And you're thinking: sounds legit, what's wrong with it?  Uh...we frequently lose track of Debbie, we always feel like we're watching Steve Coogan instead of Paul Raymond, and nobody involved knows whether this is a comedy or a drama.
  What The Look of Love winds up doing then is simply showing a lot of skin. Coogan is given some unexpectedly poignant moments (which he's alright in), but mostly he's playing another in a line of the self-aware jerks he does best.  Counter to him is the often much too sincere Imogen Poots, who looks every bit the 70s queen but whose relative soulfulness runs directly counter to Coogan's wink wink nudge nudge moments spent in threesomes, soft core shoots, and publicity stunts. There's no balance, and as we stumble rapidly through the three decades of material Winterbottom has chosen to cram in here, that imbalance makes for a confusing filmwatching experience. Is this a jaunty amorality tale? A cautionary indictment? A shredded take on Boogie Nights? A biopic at all? The loose form that worked with 24 Hour Party People, et al is lost here. There's nary a trace of metafictionality or snarky attention to the camera. Raymond isn't leading us, Coogan isn't playing a version of himself, the story isn't based on pre-postmodern absurdism. So, the thing falls apart under its own weight. Great costumes, great sets, great music, but...where does it lead?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Love: Pacific Rim

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 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.  
At first glance, Pacific Rim seems to be adding to Hollywood's mega-blockbuster burnout without bringing anything new to the table. The cast is largely B and C-list (if at all identifiable), the director is a man who has attached his name to too many producing credits to seem publicly credible, giant robots fight giant monsters, and the idea seems recycled from past hits. It's not hard to imagine -if you're not in the know- a lazy screenwriter hitting a bong, watching Avatar and Transformers on TV, and idly typing on his macbook.  The honest critic, too, will note that none of this is exorbitantly far from the truth: in many ways, Pacific Rim is more of the same.  It's a noisy, CG-ridden extravaganza where the dialogue reads as a bit of an afterthought and the look is pure video game. The difference, though, between your Pacific Rim and your, say, Battleship is a matter not of some intangible feel-good element like 'heart'.  The difference is that this time someone actually thought it through.  Where so many alien/robot/monster vs. little guy/alien/superhero/etc movies have been unkempt messes of plot-holes, illogical world-building, and confused editing, Pacific Rim arrives dressed in a goddamn tuxedo.  It knows where it's going, it knows where it's been, it knows exactly what else has walked this path before.
While that may seem like common sense in an industry that cranks out a higher and higher number of full-throttle pics a year, we all know it's something pretty rare. The business model for film production when there's this much money on the line isn't about getting things right, but about getting it finished and decent enough to turn a profit.  So, those gaping plot holes aren't corrected, nobody expects an Oscar, and everyone forgets that there should be a flow and a fun to the film instead of just letting them ride.  Pacific Rim, by comparison, builds its world intelligently and completely, without blowing its pyrotechnic load in the opening sequence.  Guillermo del Toro is, of course, a genre-favoring director who nerds are actually proud to claim as one of their own. He gets what we want to see from our effects movies, what the legitimately 'awesome' bits may be, and he shreds the rest.

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.
Becket is exactly the type of hero Jake Sully is in Avatar, and little else, but he does the trick. You root for the guy, and you root for the characters he eventually becomes surrounded with if only because they're all that stands between destruction and survival. You get it, even if the script does a piss poor job of adding dimension to the characters. They're as empty as they come, though Del Toro deserves credit for populating a distraught Earth with an assortment of people more diverse than the average whitewashed fare. He packages a mini-globe of accents and ethnicities, and when Becket arrives back on the scene at the behest of head honcho Officer Pentecost (Idris Elba), the world he enters is a sort of cheesy Olympic village of heroes all working towards the same goal. It's a bit much, yes, but Pacific Rim's overt interest in human teamwork and achievement does manage to attempt a follow-thru on pushing its characters in directions that open movie cliches even as they abuse them.

 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...
This. Movie. Is. Beautiful. If you go to it and you appreciate nothing else, appreciate its raw aesthetic value. It is a comic book illustration brought vividly to life, a video game in crushingly lush colors, a film with a unique amount of attention placed on its palette and the design of its characters. Del Toro knows better than to have his battles waged on boring, brightly lit urban pavement. Instead, he gives us a vivid, anime-style tableaux of monsters, machines, and mayhem. The war between the Jaeger and Kaiju allows for another benefit as well: we can - at all times- tell who's doing what. No tangles of unrecognizable scrap-metal here.  You can actually follow the action, appreciate the ocean bubbles, the falling rain, and all the pretty neon lights and halos around them.  The action can't be captured in the promotional stills, and is barely caught in the snippets of the trailers. Pacific Rim is built for the big screen, immersive in its dynamic use of 3D, and surprisingly lovely to behold.  It's the icing, for sure: sugar-high worthy eye candy spread over a kinda dry cake, but one made with some amount of love.

Bring Out the Bodies: A Reminder

Only God Forgives enters limited release today in most corners of the globe, but I was fortunate (or, unfortunate?) enough to see it back in May. The film, though highly anticipated by many, is a controversial mixed bag of style, superficiality, and raw violence...and I've been anxiously awaiting hearing/reading the opinions of others as they join the conversation.  If you haven't already, check out my initial write-up, and read beyond the rating.  Is it a bad genre film working towards art? A good art film muddling genres?  Is it a pretentious, over-cooked bloodbath without substance?  Is Ryan Gosling's silent moment over? Is this the Refn film we thought we wanted, but maybe didn't? Can we all agree that Kristin Scott Thomas is amazing here?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Love: The Way, Way Back

So, I hate those Oscar season movies designed to manipulate your emotions in a very precise, very calibrated way. You know what I mean? Those stories where everything is kind of generally terrible and the humorous absurdity of human life never works its way to the surface?  What I object to about those films is, more often than not, their way of twisting away from actually developing their characters and instead relying too heavily on emotionally intense situations. Those films (and one or two of them seem to grab a few nods every year) fall under a heading of genuinely disingenuous where many a small family melodrama reveals itself to be resonant or sincere while still in possession of something playful. The Way, Way Back is one such film: a near-perfect example of an indie summer comedy, but more deeply, pleasantly affecting than the dramatic downers pushing and shoving for your attention in the dead of winter.
There's something familiar and well-worn about much of The Way, Way Back. It seems built from a patchwork of past successes and Sundance favorites; the kind of crowd-pleasing films that you buy and return to when you need to remember there are good things in the world. You've got your Little Miss Sunshine, your Adventureland, your The Descendants -- not to mention your choice of semi-dark coming-of-age comedies. The Way, Way Back is another in a line-up, and feels like a broken in t-shirt.  Everything is exactly in place, there are few surprises (pleasant or unpleasant), but the dialogue is sharp, the lines are funny, and the characters affable.  Ostensibly, we're following the teen angst of slouched, pale and miserable Duncan (Liam James) as he's pulled from his natural environment and forced into an extended summer vacation at his mom's boyfriend Trent's (Steve Carell) beach house.  Duncan's mom Pam (Toni Collette) has managed to turn a blind eye to Trent's instigating relationship with her boy, and snoozes through moments where Trent attempts to forcefully motivate awkward Duncan into becoming a more social creature by way of belittling diatribes. To be more like Trent, though, would mean being an oily car salesman for whom beach house life is an endless run of gluttonous, irresponsible decisions.  The film relishes this element, though, mining instantaneous comedic gold from a bawdy, boozed-up Allison Janney and a small gang of familiar sun-worshipers.  
Desperate for an escape, Duncan pedals to the local water park and finds solace hanging with the employees. The boss, Owen (Sam Rockwell) is a manic-pixie-dream-father for Duncan; a character capable of sweeping onto the scene with an endless string of wisecracks, put-ons, and devil-may-care beliefs and changing a bored kid's life for the better.  So, ostensibly, The Way, Way Back is about Duncan trying to find himself.  I say ostensibly because although the film uses Duncan to guide us through the story -and to connect the dots between the arrested development of the beach house and the water park - there's an engagement with the secondary characters that's productive, satisfying, and memorable in spite of its cliches. They've got something, and although they traipse through familiar situations, it certainly doesn't seem stale. Maybe it's a mix of the right lines, the right chemistry, and the right chronology. Maybe it's that they let Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell do what they do best for extended periods of time. They're fabulous, the both of 'em, and thankfully never forced to cross paths and battle for our favor.
The best answer to what The Way, Way Back has is sort of like the answer to what Little Miss Sunshine had that made it just different enough to strike a chord: if you stripped it of its broad comedic strokes, threw some shadow on the scenery, and zoomed out to keep the focus on the transforms rapidly into something much closer to the tough love Oscar fare we're used to heaping accolades on. There's a hint of something kept at bay and transmogrified into sour, sharp little one-liners, and it's that sense of something just deep enough that gives the film's humor some fighting weight... and a beating heart to back it up with. The indie coming of age/dysfunctional family story has become a sort of formula film-type of its own.  Like those Oscar-bait bits of emotional pornography, they frequently try too hard to capture the fragile point between childhood and adulthood in a way that simpers with nostalgia, sidles up to you with a sad pop song, and wins you over with a realist triumph.  They want you to feel or they want you to laugh. Sometimes, they want you to be shocked, and that's usually a recipe for disaster.  When you pool all the forgotten titles cluttering library shelves, you start to realize that getting the right thoughts down in the right order with the right cast and the right lines and the right pacing is a hell of a lot harder than it looks.  The Way, Way Back does it. It gets it right. If it wanted to keep going? That would be alright too. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Like: Much Ado About Nothing

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

Love: Despicable Me 2

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. 
I've argued in the past that there's a sort of understood difference between what we opt to call an 'animated' work and what we call a 'cartoon'.  It's sort of like the colloquial difference between movies and films: they're the same thing, sure, but one tends to be appraised more for its art than its entertainment. In the illustrated realm, we tend to refer to a Hayao Miyazaki film or a classic Disney feature as animated while cartoons are the Looney Tune pop bits of self-referential ephemera that shoot for laughs, smarts, and distractions more than attending to the aesthetic object. There are very good cartoons and very bad cartoons, of course, and all are still classifiable as art forms in the technical sense. The better cartoons, though, don't pander to an infantile audience. They are complete works in possession of themselves, and their creators understand that fun isn't just for kids or marketing toys.  These works create a madcap world of likable characters, possibilities, and jokes that can be appreciated at levels high and low. They're Animaniacs, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Adventure Time. Despicable Me 2 is pure cartoon, and one of the best kinds: smart, funny, adorable, and expertly paced. It bolts out the gate like the Road Runner and doesn't stop the gags until the credits are nearly complete.
Admittedly, the movie's plot is pure sequel. Where box office rival Monsters University levels the repeated fun with a new context and a shrewd attention to character development, Despicable Me 2 is interested in amping up the stuff you like and giving you more of it. The minions, for example, take on a far more important role, and teeny-tiny Agnes steps forward as the child most audience beloved.  The big addition to the team is Agent Lucy Wilde (voiced by Kristen Wiig), an extremely excitable stick-figure who recruits Gru (Steve Carell) for a top-secret mission with the Anti-Villain League. Gru, of course, remains retired from his nefarious pursuits. He's settled into the role of full-time suburban dad to Margo, Agnes, and Edith - planning fairy-princess themed birthday parties instead of elaborate heists.  Still, the League gives him a taste of the old life, and he and Lucy go undercover at the local mall to investigate mysterious happenings.
Wiig's character runs a little on the shrill side til you get used to her, yes, but if nothing else, Despicable Me makes a strong case for why - from time to time- celebrity voice talent can be worth the excess budget. Carell's overcooked Slavic accent remains a pitch-perfect match for Gru's Uncle Fester-y appeal, and listening to him swing through moods, modes, and roles is pretty fabulous. All the actors tend to disappear into their characters here instead of being used for some identifiable street cred, and in general they work it to their advantage. Still, several of the supporting roles are practically invisible, and a few of the characters have all but disappeared.  Edith, for example, barely has a role here, exchanged for Agnes's universal cuteness and Margo's slight contribution to pushing forward the plot.

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

Love: The Heat

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.    
More than a few people on my Twitter and Facebook feeds this past weekend seemed to think that in owning up to enjoying The Heat they were succumbing to a guilty pleasure, that there was something inherently awful about the idea of the film their friends and followers might object to.  My question is, why?  The Heat isn't some sappy, cloying romantic comedy built off a paper thin set of character archetypes. It's not some big budget, pseudo-sci-fi mess of easy to translate expository dialogue, or an infantile kid's movie chock full of talking dogs and poop jokes.  It's a competent recasting of the buddy film, a genre notoriously more interested in the chemistry of its leads than the careful mapping of a complicated plot. As a buddy cop film? The Heat is pretty damn funny. The jokes are constant, the tongues are sharp, the actors physically commit to their characters, and the interplay between them hits on a budding friendship that makes you root for them. They've got that spark. They're a believable team. They're fun to watch. What more could you want?

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'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 has a thing or two to say about women in the workplace, it's true. Feig gets in a handful of jokes and supporting character dynamics structured around ideas of perception, misogyny, age, and gender; they may be obvious, but it's important that they're there.  Should the delivery, though, be the determining factor in whether or not the film is an effective, 'different' kind of comedy?  Does their presence -as comments women in these roles would undoubtedly deal with - shift The Heat into a place where it needs to be a groundbreaking statement?  Why, in the eyes of some professional film writers, is it somehow less funny for loud women to participate in goofily portrayed police misconduct when equally loud men (Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Channing Tatum, Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Danny McBride, etc) frequently do so to rave reviews?

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%?   

Love: World War Z

Brad Pitt steps away from the on-screen snacking, laces up his shit-kickers, and leaps directly into my worst nightmare in World War Z, a nonstop action flick that blends George A. Romero influence with the off-putting plausibility of Contagion. After falling victim to a run of rumored production setbacks, reshoots, and (what I'd consider) a piss poor advertising campaign, the once-much anticipated adaptation of the Max Brooks bestseller now reads more like a sleeper success than a runaway blockbuster.  Sure, the adaptation boasts a huge name and explosions to spare, but little has amped up to the glossy, kinetic heights we're used to with our summer cash-grabs. Instead, there's something a little rough and raw to World War Z. Not sloppy, but somehow just...subdued. The action here is on a human scale, and it doesn't overplay its hand. While cult fans of the novel may be disappointed with the way the material has been tampered with, and by the loss of the oral history element fueling the experience, as an action film: World War Z is surprisingly sturdy stuff.       
Note that I said 'action' movie and not 'zombie' flick. Not because it's not a good entry into the zombie canon, no. All things considered, it's a uniquely straight-laced approach to content that's been overplayed and recycled to hell in a rash of trendy variations on the 'zombie apocalypse'.  What makes this particular film just a little bit different is the way it seems to want to avoid overusing the heavily made-up/CG monsters.  World War Z isn't just another run-on zombie pile-up, though it abuses the conventions of the genre. Maybe it's a special effects glitch, maybe it's the abundance of re-cutting, but somewhere along the way the film managed to lean a little more towards the character's struggle than disaster carnage. 'Zombie' feels like too kitschy a word for the seriousness of Z's action, and though the undead plague victims are just that, it's be tough to file this away under a horror subheading.

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.    
On the way, Z rips the audience away from just about every tool we'd imagine at our disposal. The world becomes something experienced in tight corridors: bunkers, crowded airplanes, walled-in cities. Though the film makes only a stumbling effort to stress family and heart, there's something to the forced separation of Gerry and Karin that succeeds more in constructing a sense of complete isolation than in creating emotional drama.  Gerry loses contact. He's without hope, without information, without a means of communicating; and everywhere he goes? It's already too late. The further things get, the quicker the film moves. The quicker it moves, the more I found myself involved. Clattering teeth and a couple weak plot twists aside, World War Z engrosses with a power far beyond what it should be capable of. Though it's far from a landmark film in its genres or for its cast, this is a roller coaster of a movie movie, a popcorn thriller that exceeds expectations. 

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