December 28, 2013

Her (12/28/2013)

Lettergrade: A

Spike Jonze's Her imagines a not-too-distant future where voice-controlled user interface programs like Apple's Siri are taken to the next level via a newfangled operating system that combines artificial intelligence with the sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson. That's just perfect for sad-sack Joaquin Phoenix, who separated from his wife a year ago and is having trouble finding much joy in life. Outside of constantly playing video games and his job as a professional letter writer (meaning that he works for a company which assigns him to write other peoples' personal - sometimes heartfelt and intimate - correspondence), he mostly mopes around "future Los Angeles" feeling isolated and alone.

His new OS calls herself "Samantha," and is extraordinarily personable… she reacts with giddy shock when Phoenix gets important emails, wants to talk with him about his feelings and interests, and is always doing helpful things like organizing all his old files without even really being asked to do so. After a couple of lousy dates with flesh-and-blood women who seem to be carrying as much unusual baggage as he is, is it all that surprising that Phoenix starts to feel more of a connection to Samantha than to some of the similarly wounded lonlies he meets out there?

I'm a little hit and miss with director Spike Jonze, honestly, but I found a lot to really like about Her. His movie takes socially relevant questions about what happens to human interaction when all this increasingly omnipresent technology is used as an intermediary - or in Samantha's case, an outright substitute - and runs with them in a way that reads like one of those short stories people like Woody Allen and Shel Silverstein would write for The New Yorker and Playboy back in the day. The concept is a little weird and farcical, but ultimately the science and technology of it doesn't matter as much as the premise and the emotional trip it takes Phoenix on, which I found myself really caring about.

I've talked with a few people who felt that movie is a bit episodic in ways… once Phoenix and his OS are out in the open about having a "relationship," - which, as we discover, is not unique to them in this story - the midsection of the picture kind of cycles through its own versions of what real couples experience… the honeymoon phase (and subsequent cool-down), the awkwardness of running into an ex, jealousy (on both sides), fights over matters both large and small, and the feeling of growing at different speeds or in different directions. I somewhat agree that once you get a sense of what the movie is up to, some of this material can start to feel a little laborious, but I don't know… I think that the way this film examines all these issues always manages to stay potent.

Occasionally, the insular insanity of what Phoenix is in the middle of seems to dawn on him… he'll look up and see that nearly everyone around him is walking around, talking into bluetooth headsets or staring at their phones. Although the Los Angeles that Phoenix lives in is much larger and more metropolitan than the one of today (the picture was filmed both here and in Shanghai to create the effect), I'm not sure that Jonze had to exaggerate that much when depicting how addicted people already are to their phones.

My post on Jonze's previous movie, Where The Wild Things Are, which I felt very conflicted about.

December 25, 2013

American Hustle (12/25/2013)

Lettergrade: A

In American Hustle, Christian Bale and Amy Adams are a pair of small time New Jersey crooks that get caught by an over-zealous FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper. Sensing that this could be the case that makes his career, Cooper pushes their scams to even crazier heights in an attempt to further entrap local politicians, state congressmen... maybe even US Senators and members of the mob.

A clinical description of the plot, however, doesn't quite do this very strange and insanely entertaining movie justice. It was directed by David O. Russell, who made Silver Linings Playbook last year, and The Fighter in 2010. At times, Hustle feels a little like his take on Goodfellas crossed with an Elmore Leonard crime plot, but populated with the same kind of cracked, emotionally unstable characters who made Silver Linings so entertaining last year. Whatever the influences, I found this picture to be a hell of a lot of fun, and one of the most exciting experiences I've had watching a movie this year.

"Everybody's always conning everybody," Bale says early in the picture via some Martin Scorsese style voice over. And he knows what he's talking about: His character is married to Jennifer Lawrence (as a detestable housewife who hates her husband, but won't grant him a divorce), however he's actually in love with Adams, his loan-scam partner who spends much of the movie intermittently putting on a frilly British accent for unclear reasons. As the picture goes on, Bale deceptively earns the trust of Jeremy Renner, playing the new mayor of Camden who hopes to use the dark money Bale promises him to fund a string of new casinos in the state, thus upping revenue and greatly increasing quality of life there. Other cast members include Louis C.K. as Cooper's boss, hilariously frustrated by his own inability to control his agent, and an uncredited Robert De Niro, returning to one of his old standards by playing a vicious mobster for the first time in a while.

The movie is loosely based on something that really happened in the 70s (the "Abscam" scandal), but it is also pretty clear upfront that we're looking at a fictionalized version of the story. I have no idea how much is based on actual events, but I loved that the film kept on getting crazier and crazier as Cooper greedily eyes bigger arrests and events spiral out of control.

One of the pleasures of the movie is how utterly awful it makes all these beautiful people look…. I can't think of another picture where everyone's hair is so thoroughly hideous. The sets, the costumes, the ostentatious camera work and editing… it all makes for an incredibly entertaining caper that never gets boring, even for a minute.

In the end, I don't think American Hustle is about anything all that meaningful or profound - at least not the way Russell's previous two pictures were - but it's a good thinking-man's comedy crime story… when's the last time you've seen something like that?

December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (12/21/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

Several months back, when I heard that Saving Mr. Banks was on the way, I figured it would be a movie that's right up my alley. The picture tells the true Hollywood story of how author P.L. Travers, after 20 years of persuasion, finally agreed to let Walt Disney produce a feature film based on her books, resulting in 1964's Mary Poppins.

I saw Poppins what seems like several hundred times as a kid, and that - combined with my interest in stories about old Hollywood moviemaking, to say nothing of my fascination with Walt Disney himself (not his movies as much as the man, the company he built, and the cultural phenomena he presided over) - all caused me to think that this would be a grand slam for me. I love Emma Thompson (who plays Travers), Tom Hanks seemed like the perfect guy to play Disney, and I initially thought it was an interesting bonus that the production had access to all the Disney archives and records, and that they got Richard M. Sherman, one of the original songwriters on Poppins, onboard as a consultant.

Nevertheless, the whole thing left me a bit cold… Mainly, I thought the picture vilifies her a bit too much, and sanctifies him in a way that makes him a lot less interesting than Walt Disney himself probably actually was. Exempting that, though, I thought the picture committed the gravest of all movie sins: It was a little boring for significant stretches. While there are flashbacks aplenty which attempt to show where some of Travers' ideas and inspiration might have come from, it's shockingly light on getting much into Walt Disney himself (apart from him saying that he "promised his daughters" that he'd make Mary Poppins into a movie some 20 years earlier a few times).

The film doesn't seem to be about Travers and Disney coming to understand each other and forming a mutual respect, as much as it seems to be about Disney wearing Travers down. The film rightly tells us that she only considered finally approving a Poppins film in 1961 in the first place because her books had stopped selling and she really needed the money. The ending of this movie acknowledges that she didn't much like the finished film and never allowed the Disney company to produce another picture based on her work. If all that is true, what exactly is our story here? That Travers feared the worst when Hollywood came knocking, and walked away with her expectations largely met?

I'm guessing that most who see this movie are a bit like me: They saw (and loved) the Mary Poppins film as a kid, but know very little about Travers herself, if anything. Nevertheless, the structure of Mr. Banks is set up so that we're constantly flashing back to Travers' childhood in Australia, where her father (played by Colin Farrell) imbues her with a sense of imagination and wonder, while his alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies simultaneously rip the family apart.

The flashback scenes seemed haphazardly placed and ineffective during the first half of the movie in particular… They appear almost at random. In fact, for a time, the movie just seems to be indiscriminately alternating scenes that take place in the "present" (read: 1961) with scenes from Travers' childhood without a clear design in mind. About an hour in, the film starts to make it interesting: A scene where Travers listens to a demo performance of "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" (the film's "greed is good" musical equivalent, as performed by the board of directors at the bank that Mr. Banks works at) is skillfully intercut with Farrell giving a speech at an event for the bank he worked at in flashback Australia, intensively illustrating how constrained he felt by his job.

My reaction to such a powerful scene was two-fold: On one hand, I was pleased that they finally got the film's awkward flashback structure to work in such an effective way, but at the same time, I was unsure if such a strange, intense moment was really right for this movie. The constant, highly-reflective nature of the flashbacks kind of suggest Travers is haunted and tortured by her past in a way that doesn't fit Thompson's performance. Her subsequent outburst in the "present day" half of this scene that I'm talking about kind of suggests a woman on the verge of a complete emotional and psychological breakdown during these story meetings, and that's something that doesn't entirely ring true to me either.

In the pre-release interviews for this movie, the cast and key creative personnel were quick to preempt any criticism that since this is a movie about a famous Walt Disney production that has been produced by the Walt Disney Pictures of 2013, the truth has been cleaned up and whitewashed somewhat. I'm not convinced that they're being legit when they say that. From the get-go, Travers is a sour, unlikeable, emotionally unstable crotch, and Walt Disney is a benevolent father figure who does no wrong (apart from "kind of" smoking in one scene). By playing her disgust with the Disney company the way that the film does, it is kind of trying to have its cake and eat it too. In the end, though, Walt gives a big sales pitch that (spoiler altert!) gets her to relinquish her rights, despite her many, many objections, and it seems pretty clear that the film has a very decidedly "pro Disney" position overall.

On that subject, Saving Mr. Banks has the foul and off-putting stench of corporate synergy all over it. The Disney Studios Lot and Disneyland itself all look exactly like they do now (not altered, either practically or using VFX, to appear as they looked then, which I'm much more curious about). In the movie, the employees of the Disney lot walk around with a vacant, hypnotized devotion to the man and his work… as if the Blood of Kali from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom was given to all new hires during their orientation period (actually the Disney lot still feels like that today at times). The movie is an extended love letter to the myth of Walt Disney and pays little attention to whomever the man himself might have been. Isn't strange that while Walt talks about how important it is to keep this promise to his daughters we never actually see them? Or his wife? Or his home life? Or his brother Roy, with whom he ran the company? Or anything about the guy at all that might make him seem a little more like a human and less like the same jolly huckster who used to host Walt Disney Presents every Sunday night?

I think there's a fascinating story or two to be made about Walt Disney's life and his company (warts and all), but I don't see the production of Mary Poppins as the epicenter of what the man was all about, and I don't think that Disney is the studio to tell a story like that. It's unfortunate that Travers had so many problems with Disney and the movie he ultimately produced, but since I imagine that few will see Saving Mr. Banks without at least some affection for Mary Poppins, it seems like she's walking into a drama with the deck seriously stacked against her.

And while we're nitpicking… doesn't the film's title basically telegraph the film's resolution roughly 100 minutes before the film gets there itself?

December 18, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (12/18/2013)

Lettergrade: D

I really didn't like the original Anchorman when I first saw it back in 2004, but I warmed up to it upon subsequent viewings, mostly because several of my friends kept quoting it and would talk about its unsung brilliance. While I can now see a kind of crude genius to the film, I still maintain that it's best seen in small segments on YouTube instead of in one tortuous sitting.

What bothered me about it (and still does a little) is that while there were a lot of funny lines and moments, it really didn't try to be much of a movie. Any sense of cohesion between the various scenes was almost aggressively, defiantly non-existent. I guess there were plot points that would carry on from one scene to the next, but there wasn't really a "plot" itself as much as there was an excuse to put some really funny actors into silly costumes, and to let them riff for a bit.

I didn't take much pleasure in scenes like the following one, where you kind of get the feeling that they had done 30 or 40 takes, and at this point Will Ferrell was just saying whatever random combination of words came into his head while the camera happened to be running:

Anyway, I'm going out of my way to try to describe my evolving relationship with the first movie because I just saw Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues on Wednesday, and my feelings about it are a bit similar to how I initially felt about part 1 nine years ago. Some really good laughs in there, but as a movie, it's a garbage-y disaster that doesn't really try to accomplish much. I wonder… will I gradually grow to "sort of" like this one too?

My main thought is that the picture is (ironically) at its worst when it actually does make a faint-hearted attempt at having a plot. The premise, I guess, is that it's 1980 and Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who had teamed up as lovers and as co-anchors of the Channel 4 nightly news in San Diego at the end of the first movie, now have a son. Life is disrupted when Veronica is called up to be a national anchor for the network in New York, and Ron is given the boot altogether. Ron is down and out until he's hired to come to New York himself to work for a new fangled 24 hour cable news station. He rounds up his disbanded news team - Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner), and the scene-stealing Brick Tamland (Steve Carrel) - and heads to NYC to professionally redeem himself and win back his family.

The problem isn't that the movie attempts a premise like this… the problem is that it handles the the "plot" scenes so poorly whenever they come up. As irritated as I can be with scenes that seem utterly purposeless and completely improvised, at least things often happen in them that get a few laughs. The "plot" scenes in this movie almost universally bring the film to a screeching halt and there's little joy to be found in them… as if the film is begrudgingly eating its vegetables whenever it comes time to try to justify its existence.

I understand that I'm complaining about two opposite things here: I can't be annoyed that the movie by and large doesn't really try to do much, and then grouse about the scenes where it actually does, but I guess I'm circling around the main thing that bothers me about these pictures without quite knowing how to articulate it.

The Anchorman movies feel haphazard and slapped together in ways that director Adam McKay's other movies with Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby , Step Brothers and The Other Guys) do not. Talladega Nights is my favorite of those, mainly because it's the one that functions the best as a real movie while still being really funny. The Other Guys is less successful on both counts, but at the very least there was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and McKay and Ferrell appeared to have somewhere they wanted the movie to go. Anchorman and its sequel feel more like someone's self-indulgent home videos that were compiled quickly and spit into theaters without revision.

One curious thing about The Other Guys is that toward the end, it started to develop a pretty serious, liberal-bent anti corporate crime message. Anchorman 2 similarly has a weird subplot that starts up midway through which rails on the faulty moral compass and lapsed sense of responsibility in the news media. This kicks off when Burgundy proclaims that they shouldn't be reporting the news people need to hear, they should be reporting what people want to hear. He loads his broadcasts up with brain-dead, low-information fluff and uninformed banter, and is rewarded with record-smashing ratings. In case you've missed the commentary, the movie also treats us to a montage where Ron demands that the broadcasts be lathered with news-tickers and graphics constantly moving this way and that.

The mockery of how bad most cable news outlets have gotten these days (for some reason, Fox News in particular feels singled out, although the movie never does so specifically) is unmistakable, but this is a movie set in 1980, when cable news was just starting out and had not yet gotten to be as awful and as “lowest common denominator” as it is now, in 2013. I'm all for the movie taking shots at this very deserving target, but the way it does so is so broad and aimless… It's more like they "mention" it and then move on, rather than saying anything meaningful about it. You really have to wonder if they couldn't have come up with something a bit more interesting to say about present-day media if they weren't just making the whole movie up as they went along.

Nothing in this new movie "tracks" - there's nothing going on with any of the characters emotionally or professionally that builds or develops throughout. On that subject, here are a few observations:

-So, Ron and his news team do fluffy, bullshit stories EXCEPT when another one of the movie's lead-balloon plot scenes comes along. Then suddenly, Brian Fantana is working on this hard-hitting piece on faulty airplane parts that the parent company of the network wants to kill because it is under the same corporate umbrella. When did Fantana become interested in reporting actual news?

-There’s a mild debate going on throughout the film about how some characters want to protect the integrity of the news, while others don’t. That comes and goes as the movie needs it to, and is largely abandoned by the end. I was still young when cable news started to be on the rise, but was it as rotten as it is now from the very get-go? Anchorman 2 seems to be saying that it was.

-Megan Good’s character, the general manager of the cable news station, hates Ron and everything he's trying to do with his low-information broadcasts passionately, until suddenly she desperately wants to make love to him. They date for a couple scenes, I think, and then Christina Applegate shows back up so they sort of forget about that subplot.

-The best part of the movie is again Brick (Carell). They give him a girlfriend this time, played by Kristin Wiig, and she's basically the female version of him combined with undigested bits of pretty much every other character Wiig has played previously. Their scenes take up an insane amount of screen time (meaning that they must have gotten a good response in the test screenings), but they have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. I've always admired that Ferrell is confident enough in himself that he's not afraid to have other big-dog comedians share his movie (hey, he allowed Sacha Baron Cohen to steal pretty much every scene away from him in Talladega Nights!), but it would have been nice if they had come up with something more interesting for Carell and Wiig to do.

Gags from the previous movie are reprised in this one now and again. I think I liked that this new movie at least tried to find some new contexts to put the gags in, rather than replay them in exactly the same way that the first movie did, but I still had a sense of "Oh, so it's time for that scene again" whenever one would start up. The main culprit is the crazy fight scene between all the rival news organizations that appeared early in the first movie. It's given a much more important placement in 2, and McKay decided to amp things up by adding even more news teams, celebrity cameos, and bizarre vignettes. Okay. But is it funny? I would argue that it's not. It's just "more." "More" is seldom funny, and throwing lots of money at the screen rarely gets a laugh either.

I think this all points to a bigger issue which is that the comedy world is so goddamn insular that a sense of what's "good" really gets lost. I truly believe that ideas which are not funny and should never find their way into a movie or TV show often do because of a combination of force-of-will on the part of the writer/performer who thought the idea up AND the people around them - friends, writers, other comedians - who are too chicken-shit to look them in the face and tell them that what they're talking about is completely terrible.

The worst movie I’ve seen since starting this blog is still Year One. A lot of funny people are in it, and f***ing Harold Ramis (of Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Groundhog’s Day fame) directed it. And it’s wretched. A burnt out wasteland that contains not a single laugh. How could all that talent get together for a few months and have virtually nothing to show for it?

Anchorman 2 isn't nearly that bad, but it also isn't anything even remotely approaching "good." Mostly, it's depressing to think of all the time and money that was spent making something so empty and pointless. Whilst leaving the theater, I had the same thought that I sort of remember having back when I saw the first movie in 2004… "They were given several million dollars and the chance to make a 2 hour movie that they knew would play in theaters nation-wide… and this is what they did with it?"

December 14, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (12/14/2013)

Lettergrade: B-

I didn't enjoy Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis much while watching it the other week, but I've thought about it a lot in the days since and might want to give it another try somewhere down the line. A number of my friends who have seen it as well seem to have similarly mixed feelings about what it is and what it does.

I was a bit surprised that my initial reaction was so unenthusiastic… I love the subject material - that of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village circa 1961, just before performers like Bob Dylan really broke out - but I guess I was frustrated that the movie kind of went around and around in an oblique sort of way and ultimately didn't seem to add up to much.

Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, is kind of an unpleasant guy... He used to be part of a duo that recorded a moderately successful album back in the day, but he's on his own now and floundering. His attempt at a solo record (also the title of the movie) isn't selling, and he's basically homeless, spending his nights on the sofa of whichever friend he's pissed off the least recently. There's a scene early in the movie where Carey Mulligan, playing 1/2 of a rival folk duo, tells our title character that he keeps falling into the same shitty patterns and cycling through the same self-destructive routines because he's not interested in changing much about who he is. The movie demonstrates repeatedly, in cringe-inducing, heart-breaking ways, that this is true. Maybe the picture isn't meant to be much more than a portrait of a time and a place, and a never-will-be who is drowning in it?

On a plot level, there isn't much to the movie, I suppose… Llewyn plays gigs and makes increasingly poor decisions. The midsection of the film follows Llewyn as he takes an agonizing road trip to Chicago in order to audition for a club-owner and successful artist manager played by F. Murray Abraham.

The interesting character mysteries to unlock in this picture all happen at the edges of the frame or off-camera altogether… Without giving much away, Mulligan's "Jean" and Llewyn have a heated exchange early in the movie, but after he returns from his trip, we can perhaps piece together that she did something in order to get him another chance to possibly succeed - a chance he promptly blows, in part because he's upset when he puts together what she's done.

While I appreciate movies that force the audience to do a bit of thinking, I must admit that this film plays a little too coy with some of these elements for me to quite grasp onto what the movie is getting at. I somewhat felt that 2009's A Serious Man, with its bizarre, out-of-left-field ending, sort of did the same thing, as did their award-winning No Country For Old Men to a much lesser degree in 2007. Now I enjoyed watching those earlier two movies immensely, but if you strapped me to a chair and forced me to explain to you what they might be about in the end, I'm not sure I could come up with a satisfactory answer for you.

Another thing I'll mention, which I feel might contain the key to unlocking what the Coens were trying to do here, is that at one point, the film is deliberately confusing about the order in which certain scenes take place. Or to put it another way, you unexpectedly come upon a scene that the movie had already shown much earlier, but it feels very different because you now have the full weight of the rest of the movie to give it some context. It's unclear where Llewyn's week begins and ends because it's all a big cycle he keeps running through repeatedly, and he keeps winding up exactly where he's already been.

Toward the end, Llewyn gives a heartbreaking performance of "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)" in front of a live audience. We've heard that song a few times earlier in the picture… First at the beginning, as Llewyn rides the subway back to Greenwich Village after staying the night at the apartment of some friends… Unbeknownst to us at that time, we're hearing the duet version that he recorded with his partner for their failed album. Later, Llewyn is asked to perform the same song at a dinner party, but gets upset when someone else tries to join in. Finally, we get to the climatic third time… another of the movie's repeated patterns and cycles. Llewyn might not be in a terribly different place when you leave him than he was when you first meet him… he's still a pretty awful, self-destructive prick toward the picture's end, but after spending a few nights on sofas with him and taking a road trip through the hellishly frozen midwest, you walk away understanding a bit more about the intensity and feeling and pain behind his weathered voice.

October 15, 2013

Gravity (10/15/2013)

Lettergrade: A-

My friend Randy saw Gravity recently (in 3D IMAX!) and was completely blown away by it. We both agreed that on a visual level, the movie is as immersive and as stunning as any that either of us have seen - and hey, I only saw it in a regular 2D theater!

While talking about the various story points, he said something I thought was really interesting: That in a sense, Gravity is a "great" movie without necessarily being a "good" one.

I understood right away what he meant (although I might not have put it that way, exactly). I suppose the story itself - which finds Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the lone survivors of NASA team sent up into orbit to perform some satellite repairs, only to be interrupted by some Russian space debris that destroys their shuttle and makes their chances of survival slim - does get a little contrived now and again, but if we're talking about Gravity as a work of pure cinema - as in something that's meant to be seen and experienced as much as it is meant to be contemplated and understood - I'm not sure I can find another picture that filled me with as much anxiety and tension for 90 minutes as this one does.

To that end, discussing this picture and what happens in it, seems to be a bit of a pointless exercise to me that will only undercut the experience for the uninitiated. I will comment, however, that Sandra Bullock really knocked my socks off here. I've always liked her, but she typically doesn't make movies that are aimed at my demographic, and so I haven't seen many of them. I have, however, occasionally acquiesced to seeing movies like The Proposal with my wife (as partial payback for forcing her to sit through crap like Scary Movie 4), and I have to admit that she's usually quite good in them.

Since Gravity is mostly from her perspective (Clooney is the only other actor who appears on screen - all others are voice only), she's got to carry much of the movie herself, and she does so beautifully. The movie is a fairly primal survivor story, and at times reminds me a bit of the stripped down, limited-point-of-view qualities of both Cast Away and (more obviously) Apollo 13. Nevertheless, the storytelling is interesting and unique… I appreciated that while the movie gradually fills some of the backstory for its two actors, it does so in a very clean, matter-of-fact way that isn't overly emotive, kind of "1970s style," really.

It's been an interesting year for movies in that some of them have been allowed to be a little more lean and economical in their storytelling than big VFX driven event pictures have been for the last twelve years or so (you know, the ones that typically run 3 hours). This movie only runs about 90 minutes, and plays perfectly at that length… no other frills and accoutrements are needed. Now that parenthood has made my free time much more precious and valuable than it used to be, I appreciated that Gravity found a way to be so brief, yet so powerful and memorable.

October 8, 2013

Enough Said (10/08/2013)

Lettergrade: C-

The first trailer I saw for Enough Said had the glossy veneer of a standard issue studio romantic comedy… the kind of lab-tested product that you would expect to star a former cast member of Friends back in the late 90s. Or to put it another way, the kind of thing I would have virtually no interest in going to see.

What turned my head as the ad went on, however, was that the picture appeared to have a pretty stellar cast: The ever-charming Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a supporting bit by Toni Collette, Catherine Keener in a small role, and perhaps most notably, the late James Gandolfini, whose final film this was.

And then I saw that the movie was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener… she's one of my wife's favorite filmmakers, having made some really interesting independent fare like Walking And Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money and her previous picture, 2010's oblique tome on liberal guilt, Please Give, which I agreed to see in part to try to make up for forcing my wife to go see movies like Scary Movie 4 on occasion. I've really grown to like and appreciate Holofcener's films myself, honestly, but I'm sorry to report that when we finally pulled the trigger on seeing this new one, I found it to have more in common with the glossy trailer that rubbed me the wrong way than it does with her other movies.

The picture is a love story about two divorced soon-to-be empty-nesters who meet and try to make a relationship work. The twist is that Louis-Dreyfus, a professional masseuse, realizes shortly after beginning to date Gandolfini that he's actually the ex-husband that one of her clients keeps talking smack about during their sessions. Upon making this horrific discovery, she's torn about what to do, but realizes that there's an advantage to keeping both relationships going. "I've been listening to this woman say the worst things about the guy that I'm starting to really like," Louis-Dreyfus says to her friend, "She's like a human TripAdvisor!" "But Albert is not a hotel," Collette counters. "Yes, but if you could avoid staying at a bad one, wouldn't you?"

That's a bit reminiscent of a Three's Company premise, I think, and it largely looks and feels like a sit-com in the first half too. This is not helped by a few key problems… The big one, I'm sorry to say, is Louis-Dreyfus herself, who seemed to have a little trouble adapting her delivery style that's always been so spot-on for Seinfeld, The New Adventures Of Old Christine and HBO's Veep (for which she has just won her 2nd consecutive Emmy) to a more intimate, languid feature's pace. During several of the early scenes, I kind of felt like she was mugging a little and giving big, punctuational line readings to a studio audience that wasn't actually there. During one of the early date scenes, both she and Gandolfini smile at each other so goddamn much that I felt like I was watching a Docker's ad or at the very least that the movie had some kind of Colgate cross-promotion going on that I didn't know about. In the second half of the movie, she is able to disappear into the role a bit more and let some of the sadness and humanity of the character get through, but early in the picture, at least, it's hard to look at her and not think of Elaine Benes.

That second half is where a little more of the interesting material creeps in, but if we're being honest, I should admit that the movie had already turned me off past the point of return at that point. Late in the picture, Louis-Dreyfus' screen daughter asks her mom if she still would have married her dad had she known in advance about all little things that would ultimately lead them to separate. I think that's an interesting inter-personal relationship question that's really at the heart of what this picture wants to get at, but it feels like the sort of thing that the movie starts to directly play with a bit too late.

There are some Holofcener bits woven throughout the movie that reminded me of what I really like about her other movies too… In particular, I thought it was interesting that Collette and her screen-husband have casual, almost callous conversations about whether to fire their maid. Scenes like those are throw-aways, really, but kind of speak to Holofcener's awareness of all the different class levels and layers of wealth that are present in the story, almost in a way that makes me wish that stuff had been a little more integral to what was going on. The film doesn't really address much that Louis-Dreyfus, a professional masseuse, probably doesn't have the same means as her friends, who have professions like "psychiatrist to the stars" and "well-published poet." Maybe class and economics were never really intended to play a large role in the movie, but it's another subject that the movie seems to bat at little, but never really do much with.

Add to all that an overbearing, acoustic-guitar based score by Marcelo Zarvos and you've got a picture that feels like it tries way too hard in the middle and doesn't offer enough payoff to justify that effort by the end. The film's most powerful moment for me was not even the ultimate conclusion of the main story with Gandolfini, but the scene where Louis-Dreyfus puts her daughter on a plane at LAX to go off to college.

I guess I'm grateful that there wasn't some big bullshit scene where Gandolfini interrupts a baseball game in order to declare his love for Louis-Dreyfus in front of 70,000 Dodger fans (which would unquestionably happen if Ashton Kutcher were in this movie), but nevertheless, I walked away feeling that the story wasn't quite a complete meal.

And before I stop typing, I should say that I really hate to bag on a picture like this which tries to tell an interesting, mature love story (but doesn't quite make it) so soon after writing a positive post about a movie like Iron Man 3, which doesn't aim to be much more than a noisy piece of dumb, entertaining fluff (and at which it succeeds). I feel like I should cut the movie a little more slack than I am simply for its intentions, but at the same time, I need to admit that I just didn't like it all that much.

September 29, 2013

Iron Man 3 (09/28/2013)

Lettergrade: B

My minimal enthusiasm for seeing yet another superhero movie (during a summer that seemed to contain nothing but) meant I didn't really make the effort to catch Iron Man 3 when it was in theaters last May. Nevertheless, the flick showed up at the Redbox across the street from our house recently, and we decided to give it a crack. Low and behold, while I didn't think it was a "game changer" for the franchise, it probably engaged and entertained me a little more than the first two Iron Men did.

I think what won me over is that new-to-the-series director Shane Black made the decision to have billionaire, narcissistic, drug-addicted defense contractor Tony Stark (played by millionaire, narcissistic, drug-addicted actor Robert Downey Jr.) spend the majority of the movie stripped of his signature Iron Man suit and super-hero accessories. The result is that the picture has kind of a 90s action movie vibe going on, much like the ones Black wrote earlier in his career: The original 1987 Lethal Weapon, 1991's highly underrated The Last Boy Scout, and 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed and where he first worked with Downey Jr., who was then struggling to make his comeback). I much prefer Black's breezier, low-key approach to the feel of the prior two movies, and the drama and character stuff played way better for me this time on the whole.

The Iron Man 3 plot springs into motion when Stark unwisely taunts a terrorist bomber known as "The Mandarin" (played by a ridiculously accented Ben Kingsley), who promptly destroys stately Stark Manor in Malibu and inadvertently strands our hero in bumfuck Tennessee. The amazing thing here is that the "Tennessee" segment, where Tony has a lot of interaction with a sass-talkin’ local kid, somehow allows this movie to simultaneously rip off both the Michael J. Fox classic Doc Hollywood and Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa. I will say, however, that it's also much more fun to watch Downey Jr. interact with people and sleuth around without his gadgets instead of being able to press a button and fly off toward the next story point as he's done in previous installments.

On that subject, Black really toned down the cartoony nature of the CG man-in-suit sequences overall, and staged a couple of solid action scenes: The destruction of the mansion, to step backward for a moment, is clever and striking in a way that I don't think previous Iron Man set-pieces have been, and the scene where Tony has to rescue a dozen people who are falling from an airplane without the aid of parachutes is top notch.

That's not to say that the movie doesn't fall into the same patterns as its predecessors did. This one pits Stark against yet another rival defense contractor who wants to "out-tech" him and take over the world (or something), just like Jeff Bridges did in the first movie and Sam Rockwell did in the second. Guy Pierce's Aldrich Killian is quite a bit more interesting and memorable than 2's Justin Hammer or 1's stupidly named Obadiah Stane, but it bothered me a little that the objective is essentially the same in all three movies. Each corporate villain is funding or manipulating another super-baddie to meet his ends. Iron Man 3 manages to stir that formula up in a way that surprised me, quite honestly, but the overall template remains the same.

I suppose Iron Man 3 has several clunky comic relief scenes too… beside the Bad Santa schtick, there's also the scene where Tony breaks into a telecom truck and meets a local who has an unhealthy obsession with him (there's no doubt in my mind that the actor in this scene was either a very close friend of the director or that he won a contest through Dr. Pepper which guaranteed him a small part in the movie). I think you take the good with the bad, though, and I stand by my opinion that 3 is mostly a step up from the previous entires.

Jon Favreau directed the other two movies, but declined to do so again this time, apparently so he could spend more time at the Round Table Pizza lunch buffet. He does appear once more as Stark's ever-corpulent bodyguard "Happy Hogan," however (albeit in a smaller role), while Gwyneth Paltrow co-stars again as "Pepper Potts," Stark's girlfriend who inexplicably has a stripper's name and who also was promoted to CEO of Stark Industries a few movies ago or something. Honestly, it's all running together for me at this point. Don Cheadle is back as Black Iron Man, and there are a bunch of old school actors I love in small roles: William Sadler as the President, Miguel Ferrer as his clearly-evil VP, and so on.

I remember liking the first Iron Man back in 2008, but looking back at it now, I can remember very little about the substance of it outside of Morton Downey Jr.'s highly entertaining performance. When I looked it up on IMDB, I had completely forgotten that Bridges had a role in the film at all! Part 2, by contrast, didn't even have that: It was a disastrous goat-fuck of a movie that was in no way coherent or satisfying, and it primarily seemed to exist in order to put pieces in place for 2012's superhero meet-up The Avengers. Now that we're on the other-side of that (and Marvel is a billion dollars richer), I really hope the movies avoid the trap of trying so hard to tie into the others that they're not "complete" on their own.

One thing that bothers me about 3 in particular is that it makes a whoooooole lot of references to the end of The Avengers from last year… There are several points in the movie where Tony stops and says that he just hasn't been right since "New York happened." I watched the premiere of Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC the other week, and there were multiple lines in that which referred both to "New York" and some of the other Marvel movies to boot. During the S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere, ABC also ran an ad for next month's Thor 2: The Dark World and there was dialogue there that referred to "the events of New York" as well. Boy... I sure hope that each and every Marvel property doesn't contain an elaborate cross-promotion for all other Marvel properties that are out there and/or about to get a sequel.

If I may name an example from my youth, when the Jetsons met the Flintstones, there was much joy and mirth to be had, sure, but once it was through, Fred and Wilma were back in Bedrock, George and Jane were back in, um, their space apartment, and no one spoke of what happened again (although the reasons why would be much more clear to European audiences who saw the much longer, uncensored cut).

Anyway, all I'm saying is that the Jetsons moved on, and the Flintstones moved on, and damn it, I hope the Marvel superheros do too.

My post on Iron Man 1

My post on Iron Man Deuce

My post on The Avengers

July 30, 2013

The Wolverine (07/30/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

For whatever reason - maybe just by default - The Wolverine wound up being the popcorn movie I was most looking forward to this summer. And yet, whilst watching it, I found myself a little under-stimulated for big sections, despite the fact that I think I appreciated on an intellectual level what director James Mangold was trying to do. If you had asked me, I would have said that I'd be all for an X-Men movie that takes moments for contemplation and philosophy. Now that I've seen one, however, I can't say that the extra screen-time made the character much more engaging than I found him to be previously. This movie is a little classier than the prior stand-alone Wolverine movie from 2009, but is it bad to say that at the same time it just isn't as much fun to watch?

Maybe the main problem is that the set-up is kind of shaky… This is Hugh Jackman's sixth (!) time playing the character… there were the original three X-Men movies, which appeared in theaters between 2000 and 2006. In them, Wolverine was a mysterious self-healing mutant who couldn't remember who he was, where he came from, and how his bones (and the claws that protrude from his hands when he gets upset) happened to be coated in nigh-indestructable "adamantium." 2009's moderately crappy prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, filled in a lot of those gaps, detailing how the character fought in every major war over the last 200 years for the sheer thrill and blood-lust of doing so, before being shot in the head with an adamantium bullet and permanently losing his memory during the 1970s (a good decade to forget).

But on to what confused me… So this new picture opens with a scene where Wolverine saves a Japanese solider's life during the Nagasaki bombing of 1945. We catch up with Wolverine in the present day… he now lives alone in the woods, having killed Dr. Jean Grey at the end of X-Men 3 and feels really bad about it. Jean's memory appears as night visions, beckoning him toward an afterlife which his mutation will not allow him to reach. He is tracked down, however, by a mysterious woman employed by the solider whose life he saved some 60-70 years earlier. The soldier became a successful technology businessman after the war, and wants to repay his debt to Wolverine by taking away his immortality, thus allowing him to live to a ripe old age and die a natural death at some point down the line.

But wait… Chronologically in Wolverine's life, the Nagasaki scene is followed by his cameo in 2011's 60s set X-Men: First Class (where he tells the younger Professor X to "fuck off" during a scouting montage), then the events of the 2009 movie (at the end of which, once again, Wolverine PERMANENTLY LOSES HIS MEMORY), then the first three X-Men movies, in which Wolverine CANNOT REMEMBER WHO HE IS OR HOW ALL THAT ADAMANTIUM WAS GRAFTED ONTO HIS BODY, AND DOES NOT REGAIN ANY OF HIS OLD MEMORIES, before picking up with the rest of this new movie. Why, then, does Wolverine not utter some variation of "Hey, who the hell are you?" after flying to Japan and meeting with the guy?

Believe it or not, the fact that the movie is very unclear about how much Wolverine remembers or does not remember about this soldier and his life before the 1970s is the main thing that sabotaged the first half for me. My thinking is that Wolverine would look at the guy not as an old friend, but as a stranger. What, then, is his personal stake in protecting the man's granddaughter from an assassination attempt in the first third of the movie, and going on the run with her through Japan with the Japanese mafia in full pursuit? It seems to me that the Wolverine from the other movies would have been a little more like, "Wait, who are you again? Okay, fuck this: I'm outta here!" and gone to the airport.

Instead, however, Wolverine is protecting a person he doesn't seem all that motivated to protect, and spends a lot of time contemplating deep, quasi-symbolic imagery that doesn't really seem to play into the film's conclusion at all, nor does it mesh well with the film's aggressive action bits. I hate to admit this, but I found my interest peaking up a bit in the movie's 2nd half, when it falls a little more into the genre traditions, if only because the material became much more straightforward at that point. Unlikely, implausible plot twists… a doomsday machine that musn't be activated… insurmountable odds that are somehow surmounted… and well, you know the rest. There's even a big section at the end where Wolverine must fight a large mechanical Samurai warrior that's sort of like the Japanese version of Iron Monger from the end of the first Iron Man crossed with ED-209 from RoboCop. This segment isn't terribly inspiring, mind you, but it doesn't have the problems that the first half has in terms of being unclear about what Wolverine knows and why he's doing anything that he's doing.

Jackman is again really solid as the title character. He might even appear a little more ripped and savage in this movie than he has as Wolverine in the past. The largely Asian supporting cast is decent as well, with Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima playing women who romance and help Wolverine along the way. The weak link is the main mutant baddie… she's called "Viper" and is played by Russian supermodel Svetlana Khodchenkova. I'm almost entirely convinced that her voice was dubbed (poorly and out of sync, at that), but that aside, her body language alone sinks her performance and turns her part into ridiculous caricature.

I think Mangold is an interesting director… I was a big fan of Copland, his debut movie, in 1996 and thought that the way in which he combined story movement with musical performances in his 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line was brilliant, exciting filmmaking. I'm always happy to see a quality director like him take on material which might otherwise be visual effects driven pulp in other hands (ahem, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but at the same time, I kind of wish the end result packed a bit more of a wallop.

I will say, however, that as an American who has always been fasciated with the ways and culture of Japan, I did find the scenery and the tour of the country that the film takes you on to be very enjoyable. More than once, I thought of Sean Connery's fifth James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, which saw the secret agent taking residence in Japan himself in order to unravel yet another plot by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to hold the world hostage. Wolverine's adventure in the land of the rising sun isn't quite as consequential as James Bond's was, but I guess that if they're going to keep making these things, at least they're choosing pretty scenery for the actors to stand in front of.

My entires on
X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class.

July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim (7/19/2013)

Lettergrade: C

I don't think I'm engaging in much hyperbole when I say that Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is the finest motion picture yet made where people in giant robot suits punch interdimensional lizard monsters that have arrived to Earth via portals at the bottom of the ocean.

That said, it's also a movie that I enjoyed greatly for a good hour or so, but ultimately kind of tuned out on during the third act. I'm not sure why that is... I think it's because the picture ultimately descended into a flurry of hard-to-follow action (and a climax that was bizarrely identical to the climax of The Avengers from last year) without generating enough interest in its lead characters to justify the bulky 132 minute running time.

The movie's main dude is played by Charlie Hunnam, whom I've really liked in various roles in the past (particularly Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby in 2002). Here he plays a down-on-his-luck robot (or "Jaeger") pilot who was thrown out of the Robot Fighter Academy (or whatever) when he pulled a cocky move on a mission and got his co-pilot brother killed as a result. Now, with the program on its last legs due to political issues, and the monsters increasing in size and frequency, Hunnam must come out of involuntary-retirement and team up with a petite, untested rookie played by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi. I've got to say that she's a little more interesting than he is in the movie, but by and large we're not really talking about a significant threat to the "great screen couple" status of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn here.

All in all, Pac Rim is kind of like Godzilla meets Robot Jox and Top Gun seasoned with Rocky and a dash of Rush Hour in there (at least, that's how I'm imagining the pitch meeting went). I took a lot of enjoyment in the intentional ridiculousness and the over-abundance of testosterone, but the whole concoction didn't entirely work for me as a satisfying movie.

As is true of the other del Toro pictures that I've liked (Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army) - and even the ones I haven't (Hellboy 1, Blade II and his English debut, Mimic) - the creature designs are imaginative and exciting, and the action feels very real and visceral, even when it's largely computer generated. The supporting cast is delightfully full of del Toro regulars - Ron Perlman, to be specific - and there are a few first timers in there as well, most notably the scene-stealing Charlie Day (from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia) and the freakish-looking Burn Gorman as a pair of scientists studying the alien "Kaijus."

When I think back through the movie, the scenes where Day runs around Tokyo trying to find a way to telepathically communicate with a Kaiju brain are the ones I remember enjoying the most. Many of the others sort of run together. I seem to recall a complicated backstory for Rinko Kikuchi involving her family dying in a much earlier Kaiju attack when she was little. The movie makes a big deal out of the fact that she was saved by Idris Elba (who plays the Robot Boxer League's crusty supervisor, and serves as sort of a Burgess Meredith / Pat Morita figure to her), but it didn't seem that shocking to me when the reveal happened. Honestly, though, I don't really remember much else other than some cool fights. And I saw this movie in the middle of the day when I was wide awake, so there's no real excuse other than that it just must not have left much of an impression.

My only other real thought about this movie is that it is another good example of a big expensive Hollywood blockbuster stacking its cast with actors who are popular in other countries... in order, I presume, to play to a much larger international audience. I actually think this practice is kind of cool: 2011's fantastic Mission: Impossible: Ghost: Protocol did this in spades (which I suspect contributed to the movie doing so well both domestically and abroad) and Iron Man 3 earlier this summer even contained an "extra scene" that was only part of the Chinese version of the movie and designed to play to that audience. I don't much like the idea that different counties might ultimately see different versions of big popcorn movies, but the overall trend seems to indicate that movies like Iron Man 3 and this summer's Japan-set The Wolverine, and this one will embrace other cultures (and pop-cultures) a bit more aggressively moving into the future.

There's something a bit more exciting about that to me than in seeing new action-adventure movies return to the same three cities in Canada that all the other ones have been filmed in lately, and I think it's a clear sign of things to come.

Other movies I've seen throughout the years where giant robots punch shit:
The Transformers (07/06/07)
Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen (07/04/09)
Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon (7/24/2011)
Real Steel (10/08/2011)