December 29, 2008

Doubt (12/29/08)

Lettergrade: A

Although I like most of the cast, the commercials for Doubt gave me the impression that it was the kind of movie I probably wouldn't like. I have no explanation for that other than my hunch that it would be theatrical, stogy, and if you'll pardon the expression, preachy. In practice, the movie is none of those things. It is a much more brief and concise picture than I was expecting, but one that is legitimately thought-provoking and well-written at the same time. I appreciated that it was able to do this while staying relatively unpretentious and grounded.

Adapted and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his own Pulitzer Prize winning stage play, Doubt largely centers on Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the crusty head nun and principal at a Catholic school in the Bronx during the 60s. She's breaking in a novice nun played by Amy Adams, while keeping an eye on the charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose dynamic sermons and progressive views thoroughly chap her firmly-set-in-tradition ass.

When Father Flynn is alleged to have fondled one of the alter boys, Sister Beauvier sets off on a mission to destroy his credibility and oust him from the school. I was surprised, I must say, by the sophisticated manner in which picture allows all this to unfold... a testament both to the quality of the writing and to the actors who filled the roles. Key thematic points deal with the dangers of certainty; How it can limit one's consideration of new ideas and cause reality to be viewed through an unduly distorted lens.

The movie doesn't entirely abandon its stage roots, sticking to a handful of key sets and remaining fairly ambiguous about each character's nature and intentions. There is also a rich, cinematic feeling, however, thanks in part to the emotive work of the sound design team and the simple elegance of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Joel and Ethan Coen's regular guy who also shot Revolutionary Road and The Reader this year). One weird thing, though, is that every once in a while, there's a seemingly unmotivated canted angle, as if we've just walked into the Penguin's secret hide-out from the Batman TV series or something.

To date, the only other movie Shanley directed is a big guilty pleasure of mine: 1990's much reviled Joe Vs. The Volcano. He's also written several movies that the general public hasn't despised, though, including Moonstruck, Live From Baghdad, and now this (although it should be noted he worked as a screenwriter-for-hire on a couple of 90's shitbombs including Congo and We're Back! - A Dinosaur's Story). I guess the rule of thumb is that its safe to buy a ticket if it looks like it was a personal project he might have cared about, but you may want to run in the other direction if it looks like it is not.

I'd hesitate to call Doubt the best movie of the year, but I'd certainly place it among the 2008 movies that I liked best; even now, I'm hard-pressed to name another that I've spent more time thinking about. Someone should really fire the guy who runs the promo department at Miramax.

December 16, 2008

Valkyrie (12/16/08)

Lettergrade: C

It's sort of like Mission: Impossible with Nazis. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who in 1944 led the final of 15 attempts within the German government to overthrow Hitler and restore Germany to a position of respect and honor in the world. Of course, you know going in that their plans were not successful, but nevertheless it is a well-made thriller in the tradition of Fred Zinneman that gets you wrapped up when appropriate. I'd place the sum total, however, in the slightly-above-average category: There are some excellent performances from some of my favorite actors including Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, and Kenneth Branagh, but there's an odd absence of humanity. Everything feels very sterile and almost impersonal. Tom Cruise has gotten a lot of shit for his performance, but honestly I felt it was fine. He makes no attempt at a German accent (nor does anyone else), but I'd rather hear that than something that tried for authenticity and missed the mark wildly.

They've released the move on Christmas, which seems kind of fucked up as I doubt it will be nominated for many awards nor will the Judeo-Christian community want to interrupt their holiday family time to spend a little time with Hitler. Nevertheless, it's not a bad picture, and worth checking out if time permits.

December 2, 2008

The Happening (12/02/08)

Lettergrade: D-

Awful. Simply awful. I don't know what the hell happened to M. Night Shyalaman, but this is just sad. I mean, Jesus-tap-dancing-Christ, what the fuck was he thinking?! It's just... I can't... I mean, who green-lit this fucking thing? How did it M. Night pitch it to the studio? Who thought it was a good idea and gave him the money to make it? And Mark Wahlberg! Goddamn, I've never seen acting like that in a major, studio-fianced movie! Can you believe that asshole got nominated for an Oscar the other year for The Departed? He got nominated! Out of everyone in that movie - Jack Nicholson... Martin Sheen... Matt Damon... Leo. Shit, the prosthetic cock he wore at the end of Boogie Nights would have been a lot more convincing in this role than Marky Mark himself is. I just can't believe it... I can't fucking believe it. I mean... plants! For fuck's sake, how did Night possibly think he could squeeze even a passable sci-fi thriller out of that? And Zooey Deschanel... wow. I mean, I had no idea. Seriously. In summation: Goddamn. I mean, just spend an evening staring at a bowl of your own shit; it will be cheaper than the rental fee and significantly more rewarding.

(Seen on BluRay)

November 26, 2008

Milk (11/26/08)

Lettergrade: B+


There's a lot of man-on-man action in Milk, but it's a really good movie with an important message. Worth seeing.

November 24, 2008

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (11/24/08)

Lettergrade: B

The main thing that surprised me about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, a very good movie, is how many parallels the film has to 1994's Forrest Gump. Eric Roth was responsible for writing the screenplays for both, so perhaps he gets some of the blame. Button isn't lathered with cloying nostalgia and truisms that way that Gump was, but the structure of both movies is very similar. Each film features an unusual man who lives through remarkable segments the 20th century as a benign observer. Button starts a bit earlier than Gump did with the added Big Fishy twist that Button himself was born as a geriatric baby who gradually appears "younger" as his life progresses.

The movie was directed by David Fincher, best known for Se7en and Fight Club, who again hired Brad Pitt as his leading man. In 1995, I remember that my friend and I both begrudingly admitted to each-other that we find Pitt to be an excellent actor, having recently seen both Se7en and 12 Monkeys. He's very good in this movie as well, although the performance is a little on the blank side, more in line with what he did in Meet Joe Black.

The chick-of-the-flick is Cate Blanchette, who rarely gets to play leading ladies with sex-appeal, it seems. In another similarity to Gump, theirs is a relationship which starts in their childhoods and has a long, winding path to becoming realized. In early scenes, he's an old man and she's a little girl (think Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones) while in the later scenes, he's a young man with a much older woman (think Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and then Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore).

I don't have many other thoughts regarding this movie, frankly. I suspect it's on track to pick up a number of Academy Awards this year, and has a good shot at winning Best Picture. I'm okay with that, but I must also admit that it's one of those movies that I can acknowledge is very good while simultaneously not having a lot of excitement for it.

I have some ambivalence over how Hurricane Katrina is used in the movie, for example. Oh, and I must admit that the computer generated head of the elderly Brad Pitt super-imposed onto Verne Troyer's body (or whoever the fuck that was) during the early scenes was pretty creepy. Other than that, I maybe feel that the movie could have used a little more juice from Button himself. As I said, he goes through life observing a lot, but doing very little. The story-line with his father who abandoned him is compelling, but ultimately uncomplicated. After he dies, Pitt's character happily inherits the wealth from his dad's factory (Button's Buttons) - allowing him, like Gump, the freedom to pretty much do as he pleases - but he does not lose sight of the fact that the African American couple who raised him are his actual parents. Apparently, he does take his father's name at some point too, but I'm only assuming that from the movie's title. It seems out of character for him to do so, but who am I to argue?

Minor gripes and bitchings aside, though, it is a fine movie with plenty of high points. I can't say it's the best movie I've seen lately, but it's certainly worth seeing sooner or later when you have three hours to kill.

November 17, 2008

Quantum Of Solace (11/17/08)

Lettergrade: C

To be honest with you, I can take or leave most Bond movies. They're usually enjoyable one-time through, but after that I don't think about them much unless I happen to catch part of one when Spike TV runs them on an endless loop around the holidays. A big exception to that, however, is 2006's Casino Royale. That film introduced a new actor as Bond, Daniel Craig, but more importantly a very different kind of Bond. While I admired the cool suave of Sean Connery, the Velveeta-laden schmaltz of Roger Moore, and Piece Brosnan's skillful blending of the two, I think Craig's approach is by far the most interesting of the bunch.

Quantum Of Solace isn't quite as good as Casino Royale, but I enjoyed it for several of the same reasons; chiefly, Craig's gritty portrayal of a thinking man's Bond, and his interesting relationship with M, played again by Judi Dench, who joined the franchise at the start of the Brosnan era. I should give the disclaimer, however, that many of my friends who are long-time Bond connoisseurs (and fellow fans of Casino Royale), have told me that they don't think much of this one.

A universal complaint is one that I whole-heartedly agree with: The action scenes are shit. They hired the 2nd Unit Director of the recent Jason Bourne movies to shoot the action for this film, and the result is the same incoherent train-wreck of shaky-cam images that kept me away from the Matt Damon series to begin with.

The other big complaint is that the film returns to somewhat familiar spy-movie territory in a way that isn't particularly inspiring. If we're talking about plot, I must admit that I rarely understand what happens in these movies anyway. I know the genre well enough to know that they're not doing plot-lines involving micro-film anymore, and that these days Bond must thwart attempts to fund terrorism and reshape world governments, etc. As long as it looks like he's doing something that kinda sorta relates to that, and it doesn't get too stupid, I'm fine, really.

A key thing worth mentioning is that this is the first Bond movie which picks up directly from story-line of the previous movie. It's both a blessing and a curse: I'm glad that they've serialized the Bond movies a little (and I assume the next picture will pick up from where this one left off in some way as well) but at the same time, unless you've seen Casino recently, you might find yourself wondering who the hell some of these people are and what they're doing in the movie. The film also introduces a new insidious organization called QUANTUM (sort of a revival of SPECTER from the earlier Bond movies). I don't think we learn much about them in this movie, other than the fact that much like Mastercard, they have people everywhere, and much like Dick Cheney, they are able to operate covertly and completely outside of the constraints of national, international and maritime law.

The producers brought back Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) to co-write the script, and they picked an unusual director to make it: Marc Forster who has also made Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, and last year's The Kite Runner. The most noticeable result is that the photography is a little more abstract and artful than previous Bond flicks have been. Again, I don't think Forster and his 2nd Unit Director handled the action all that well, but the dynamic between Bond and M is stellar, and their interactions are the heart of the picture. There's no Q character yet again, although we get a closer look at the techy side of how MI-6 conducts its business than we have in a while.

One last thought, and its about the Alicia Keys / Jack White song from opening credits. People who complained that it couldn't get worse than the Madonna tune from Die Another Day should be eating their words after listening to the shit-burger that plays over the opening of this movie. Goddamn, there just aren't words for how horrible it is. I challenge you to compare it with the cheesier Bond songs of eld... The Man With The Golden Gun, Moonraker, even the semi-classic but still obnoxious Goldfinger.... none of them are in the same league as this awful, awful musical abortion.

Anyway, that's it. Espionage, hot chicks, exotic locales and stuff blowin' up real good. What else can I say?

November 16, 2008

Frost / Nixon (11/16/08)

Lettergrade: B-

I think I liked Frost / Nixon... Is it weird that I'm not entirely sure? The movie's subject material certainly plays directly to a number of my interests -- I'm infinitely fascinated by politicians, their relationship to the media, and with Richard Nixon in particular -- but whenever we talk about historical dramatizations, I'm always unsure if I like movie because of the events that are represented or if the movie is good in and of itself.

I seem to wonder that especially often during Ron Howard movies, many of which fall into this docudrama category. They're always very well-shot and professionally made and everything, but there's usually something intangible missing too that somehow keeps them away from excellence. He's also a bit inconsistent: I really enjoyed Parenthood, Apollo 13, and Cinderella Man, for example, but if you compare that with other pictures on his resumé like the strangely inert Far And Away, the lukewarm A Beautiful Mind, and the abominable, unforgivable live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas shitbomb, it's hard to tell if he was merely stumbling on the bad ones or if he happened to get lucky on the good ones. Before we went into this movie, I told my wife about my theory that Ron Howard seems to alternate good movies with sorta-sucky ones. "What was his last movie?" she asked. "The Di Vinci Code," I answered. "Wow, this one should be great then!"

And regardless of my misgivings about Howard and his handling of screen material, the Frost / Nixon story is a great one. Michael Sheen (who has played Tony Blair in a couple movies now, including 2006's The Queen), plays the Austin Powersish David Frost, who hosts a number of variety shows and other TV fluff around the globe. After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigns the Presidency in August of 1974 amidst the Watergate scandal, Frost is inspired to seek him out for his first post-Presidency interview. Of course, he's not the only journalist to do so, but Nixon, desperately wanting to repair his public image, agrees after his staff sizes Frost up as a light-weight and guesses the interview will consist of soft-ball questions that can be easily outmaneuvered.

During their initial meeting at Nixon's California home, the ex-President treats Frost to his trademark intimidation head-games, and describes their forth-coming series of interviews as a "duel." This scares Frost into bringing in expert advisors Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and Jim Reston (Sam Rockwell) to help with the preparation. Reston in particular holds fierce animosity toward Nixon and only agrees to participate if Frost intends to give Nixon "the trial he never had." The movie proceeds as a battle of wits between the two men, staged primarily on the interview set, with Frost desperately trying to outsmart the seasoned political master. Frost put up considerable money in order to lure Nixon out in the first place, most of it from his own fortune, and the tension is enhanced by the fact that no major network seems especially interested in buying the show, meaning there's a good chance the interview won't even air anyway and Frost will be financially ruined.

The script was written by Peter Morgan and is based on his stage-play of the same name. Historical dramas about recent world leaders seem to be his speciality as he has also written 2006's The Queen and The Last King Of Scotland in addition to The Other Boylen Girl earlier this year. I have no idea how much of the stage version was directly translated for this film incarnation, but it feels like a good percentage probably was. One clear addition is the slightly awkward pseudo-documentary vignettes toward the beginning where the actors talk directly to the camera in the interest of setting the movie up. Most of the film, however, is confined to a few key sets, allowing Sheen and Langella, reprising their roles from the stage version, to really show their stuff.

I believe the filmmakers misjudged the audience's interest in Frost to a certain degree, focusing much more on him than on Nixon, the movie's 500 lb gorilla. Langella's performance doesn't attempt a direct impersonation of Nixon, really, and it honestly took me some time to get used to him. Nevertheless, he does manage to carry the gravitas of the inimitable ex-President, much like Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone's Nixon, and perhaps when we're talking about a figure who runs the risk of falling into silly caricature, that's the best we can ask for.

Another problem is that in spite of those faux-documentary segments, the movie fails to give a clear sense of the national mood toward Nixon at the time. In the promotional materials for the picture, Howard talks about the anger everyone felt toward Nixon post-Watergate, and how the Frost interviews were really cathartic for him on a personal level as well as for the country. Strangely, the film fails to convey this emotion almost completely, under the assumption, I guess, that the audience would largely supply it themselves.

Context is everything here, and downplaying it is a problem. I understand why the film would want to avoid rehashing the case against Nixon, but a better understanding of why guys like Zelnick and Reston - our only stand-ins for the general public - wanted a confession so badly in the first place might have resulted in Nixon's final interview with Frost having more of an impact. The picture is more in "David v. Goliath" territory without this key component. You have a stake in what the outcome means for the people in the movie, but the way the story is staged fails to address even the promise made by tag-line on the movie's poster: "400 Million People Were Waiting For The Truth." The movie is about the forensics of what happened rather than what those 400 million got from the interviews and how they felt about it.

The picture has clearly been timed to coincide with the last few months of the George Bush Presidency, and Howard knows that the audience will likely see some parallels in that W. is on-track to leave office with a large and angry public hungry for explanations and answers too. The movie certainly gains some power from its timing, but I don't believe a direct comparison is what the filmmakers had in mind. Instead, Frost / Nixon, in a very muddled way, seems to be about the public thirst for accountability. Nixon never had to face any legal charges for what he did in office - and W. may not either - but the call for Nixon to sit in a chair and be asked some tough questions about what happened and why never faded with time, and Nixon, despite his dark, brooding secrecy and well-known resistance to talking about the subject, ultimately could not keep from answering them. The movie isn't quite a grand-slam, but then I can't imagine that Nixon's quasi-apology was entirely satisfying for the public at the time either.

November 15, 2008

Revolutionary Road (11/15/08)

Lettergrade: D+

During an early scene in Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio takes a morning train from the Connecticut suburb he shares with screen-wife Kate Winslet into New York City for work. The sequence is staged wordlessly, with bittersweet Thomas Newman music soaring over picturesque images of seas of 1960's era business men, all carrying brief-cases and wearing similar Joe Friday hats as they trudge toward their jobs.

Director Sam Mendes did a scene similar to this in his second movie, 2002's Road To Perdition, where Tom Hanks deposits his son in a Chicago train station while he goes to talk with a prominent mob-boss. Like that scene, the one in Revolutionary Road feels utterly inauthentic... like we're looking at a stylized post-card version of a time period, the likes of which Norman Rockwell might have painted for The Saturday Evening Post. That's fine for a certain kind of movie, but Revolutionary Road seems to depend on a sense of realism and credibility in order to work. Did the past ever look like that? It's possible, I guess, but the glossiness somehow makes it all seem like an impressionistic caricature as opposed to something that ever really existed.

I think that's my key issue with how Mendes makes his movies, and how he made this one in particular. I've got a number of problems, actually; It feels very theatrical, as if adapted from a stage play (although it isn't)... It has an unnecessarily lengthy running time that includes a number of subplots and side-stories that don't seem to amount to much... And the anti-materialistic, anti-establishment tone, similar in ways to that of Fight Club as well as Mendes's first film, American Beauty -- the idea being that the stuff you acquire somewhat holds you captive, and you'd be better off without it -- is starting to feel awfully clichéd and hollow to me by now. All that aside, though, it is the unnatural way in which people interact and that overly-designed fakeness which really trumps it all for me. It's one of those movies where if there were not top-notch actors like Leo and Kate in front of the camera and talent like ace cinematographer Roger Deakins behind it, I'm not sure there'd be a lot worth talking about. Which is to say that it's a shame for all these skilled people to get together to make something that cannot hold up under the weight of its own design and which doesn't really connect.

Closely adapted from a Richard Yates novel, the picture is a domestic drama about a 30ish couple who are in a serious rut. There's plenty of money, but he hates his job, and she feels restrained by raising the kids and living out in the 'burbs, which seems to have had the side-effect of killing her ambitions toward being a full-time actress (as indicated briefly in one early scene, and never referred to again). One day, Winslet gets the idea that they can sell all their things and go to another country, where they could enjoy life and live off their savings while figuring out whatever it is they really want to do with themselves. The idea energizes the couple for a time, but soon reality comes crashing in and they conclude that such a move isn't really doable.

Based only on his films, it seems that Mendes has a fairly a condescending view of the lives of most common folk - that is to say, people who did not choose to be painters or musicians or theater directors (Mendes' occupation when he's not making Oscar bait). Every day existence is a dull and painful thing in his movies. People who live in the suburbs, be it Lester and Carolyn Burnham of American Beauty or Frank and April Wheeler of Revolutionary Road, are embittered, feel trapped, and hide all sorts of dark secrets. At one point, Kate asks Leo how long they have to live lives they don't like before realizing that opportunity has passed them by and they're "second rate."

American Beauty - the quality of which I increasingly credit to screenwriter Alan Ball, who would go on to create HBO's Six Feet Under - poised itself as an exposé of the dark and twisted shit that's going on in the suburbs that you don't even know about. But the older I get, I understand that while it's powerful filmmaking, the sentiment and Medes's point of view feels less and less true. Misfortunate, apathy, and the feeling that perhaps you could have made more of yourself affect pretty much everyone at one time or another, I'd imagine, but it seems rare that people use it as an excuse to violently self-destruct, as Mendes' characters regularly have over several movies now.

A good number of people I've met seem to find ways to appreciate what they have rather than dwelling on the things they don't, and a few have even come to the wise conclusion that happiness is largely a do-it-yourself job (and doesn't have much to do with your income or where you're living). Frank and April hate their existence, but they are also wealthy to the point where the option of moving to France and living off their savings is a feasible possibility. When that prospect goes away for multiple reasons, things start to get ugly, War Of The Roses style. Really? Just those two choices, huh? Move away or have a complete melt-down at home?

We attended a guild screening of the picture at the Paramount lot on Saturday, after which Mendes and some of the actors and key creative personnel spoke. I only bring this up because the question and answer session didn't really enlighten me about the making of the film as much as it confirmed something I'd been suspecting for years anyway: That Sam Mendes is sort of a douche-bag.

October 29, 2008

Changeling (10/29/08)

Lettergrade: B

I didn't know much about Changeling going in other than that Clint Eastwood made it, Angelina Jolie is in it, and it involved a missing child. Had it not been for a free screening at the DGA this week, I probably would have missed it altogether. Nevertheless, the film, despite the fact that the title falls in the 'somewhat uninspiring' to 'shitty' range, is very good, and will likely be a major player throughout Awards Season this spring.

Based on a true story which began in 1928, Jolie's young son is missing when she returns home from work one day. After an investigation that goes on for several months, the police bring her a child whom they say is her boy, height differences and other discrepancies aside. For the next several scenes, I was concerned that we were in for a dramatic retelling of the Dead Parrot Sketch of Monty Python fame - "This isn't my son!" "Yes, it is!" - but the film then side-steps into a searing expose of the LAPD of the era, and the great lengths that it went to in order to conceal its corruption and to avoid pubic embarrassment. You can argue that sections of movie feel a little superfluous and rambly, but the picture overall is solid enough for me to look past most of that, and still give it a strong recommendation.

I like the clean, direct storytelling of Eastwood's movies, and I will be sad when the now-78 year old is no longer making them. Like Woody Allen, Eastwood usually makes one a year (although Clint has a second movie, Gran Torino, in which he also stars, coming out in limited release in December). Both men have also found ways to make movies that are profitable enough that Hollywood studios want to back them, but economical to the point where they can pretty much make what they please, with minimal interference.

Changeling continues Eastwood's fascination both with crime stories and with the Los Angeles of yesterday. Although the influence of Eastwood mentor Don Siegel can be felt here and there, the film takes as much of a cue from Chinatown as from Siegel's crime dramas like Dirty Harry. During his films, I always find myself a little surprised by what a dark guy Eastwood must be to repeatedly make pictures about kidnappers, serial murderers, and other unsavory characters. Above all his other influences, his pictures often remind me of Flannery O'Connor short stories like "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" and "The Misfit" which, although set in the decaying South of the early 20th century, often are about people who commit similar horrifying acts.

Changeling is a movie that requires patience, and it's one where not all the pieces fit together smoothly at the end. Although I'll always be a sucker for pictures like Pineapple Express and Burn After Reading, it's wonderful every so often to be reminded what solid filmmaking for adults is all about.

October 26, 2008

Sex Drive (10/26/08)

Lettergrade: D-

Boredom combined with not wanting to drive to see a movie motivated us to walk to the theater across the street from our apartment and purchase tickets for Sex Drive. It wasn't quite bad enough for us to justify walking out, but had there been some pressing task we wanted to complete before Monday morning - such as laundry - I don't think we would have stuck around either.

Without last year's Superbad (a movie I liked), there would be no Sex Drive (a movie I don't). In this one, Josh Zuckerman plays Ian, the "only virgin" at his high school. I don't know what kind of high schools the writers of this, Porky's, and the American Pie trilogy attended, but when I was that age, "not getting laid" was a pretty common occurrence.

Anyway, Ian is so desperate that he decides to steal his brother's car and drive from Chicago to Knoxville, TN in order to slip the pork-sword to the mysterious "Ms. Tasty," with whom he has been corresponding. For reasons that are unclear, he takes along his philandering pal Lance (Clark Duke) and his long-time platonic neighbor Felicia (Amanda Crew), who is one of those very pretty actresses whom everyone thinks is hideous because she has dark hair. Will Ian and Felicia realize that they've been perfect for each other all along by the end of the movie? You'll have to sit through the 1 hour, 48 minute running time to find out.

There are some chuckles to be found here, but few solid laughs. Other major components of the movie simply shatter all credulity. What about the aforementioned, slightly chunky Lance, who somehow manages to bed female consorts "several times a week", despite the fact that he looks like the unseemly child of Rainn Wilson and the unfortunate grandkid of Charles Nelson Reilly? How about the Amish community they visit which is full of glamourous-looking, hard-rock lovin', sarcastic Mennonites, some of whom are extremely well-versed in auto-repair? And what of Ian's at-home older brother, played by the often-wonderful-but-not-here James Marsden, a guy who's clearly in his mid-30s?

I've told a select few people of how we spent our Sunday evening, and the reaction has been fairly universal: "Christ, you saw that?" For one reason or another, yes we did. And we'll have to live with that. You don't have to. See something else... anything else.

October 17, 2008

W. (10/17/08)

Lettergrade: C- (it's bad, but intriguing)

The first scene in Oliver Stone's W. that really works happens about a third of the way into the picture. In it, George W. Bush and his cabinet sit around the White House war room going over how to sell their plans for the forth-coming Iraq war to the American people. Stone stages it masterfully, working in subtle looks between Bush's advisors - Don Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell - all of which underline each guy's personal agenda and the chaffing that exists with the others around the table.

The star moment, however, goes to Vice-President Cheney, played with insidious relish by Richard Dreyfuss. When pressed by Powell on why it is a priority to invade Iraq in the first place, Cheney launches into a big Network style speech (complete with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation) about the world's energy resources versus the U.S.'s energy consumption. The master plan, Stone and his screenwriter suggest, is to establish dominance in the Persian Gulf, first by seizing Iraq and its vast oil resources and then by doing the same, more or less, in Iran.

It's one of the few moments in the film where it feels like the conspiracy-weildin', drug-abusin' Oliver Stone we know and love is behind the camera, but the momentum quickly grinds to a halt when Josh Brolin, as W., reenters the conversation and basically indicates through a clumsy aside that he doesn't really know or have much interest in whatever Cheney's talking about. Believe me, I'm no fan of the guy, but something about portraying him as that dim and clueless doesn't quite jibe with reality for me.

And that's the main problem with W. for me. As a whole, it is without question an interesting and well-made film, but as a portrayal of the actual man and his life, I am a little unsure if it's a terribly good one.

Like a lot of Americans, I feel that Bush's time in office has been highly disastrous. Nevertheless, I think the big mistakes his critics have consistently made center around the assumption that the guy is as much of a moron as his mangled rhetoric and the clumsy public appearances suggest. For better or worse, Bush - with a strong assist from his family name, of course - was able to use his folksy charm and personable nature to get elected Governor of Texas twice, and then President at least once. You can question the quality of how he has governed - and Stone certainly does - but to discount his intelligence completely is to gravely mis-underestimate a man who, if nothing else, is a skilled politician.

Whereas Stone's 1995 film Nixon was a nuanced, sympathetic look at a highly controversial figure who did great things along with terrible while in office, this picture implies that there isn't much more to its subject than meets the eye. That is to say, that he lived a highly irresponsible, carefree life until he was 40, when he found religion and decided to quit drinking.

W. recreates a number of these biographical moments and speculatively connects the dots in a way that attempts to explain his behavior. The movie postulates, as has much of the investigative reporting, that he largely sought office in 1994 in order to win the approval of his father and to avenge his re-election loss to Bill Clinton two years earlier. The indictment is personal and searing, repeatedly suggesting that he wanted to be President for the wrong reasons, and that he has largely slept-walked through the job, much like all the jobs he had prior. Or as my wife put it, the movie is sympathetic with a strong emphasis on "pathetic."

A technique Stone makes frequent use of is to pluck statements Bush made publicly and place them into private settings with aides and staffers. Something about this also lacks the the ring of truth. I always sort of felt that the President speaks to the public in a very deliberate "lowest common denominator" type way, and that he's probably not like that behind closed doors. George H.W. Bush, imbued with warmth and wisdom by James Cromwell, is given substantially more dignified treatment, as is Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who's almost treated a like a holy profit. On the other end of the spectrum, Thandie Newton is nothing short of horrible as Condoleeza Rice. I noticed that she rarely gets a close-up in film, and the few fleeting times she does she's twitchy and nasally in a way that makes my skin crawl. Of course, the real Condoleeza is pretty horrifying to look at as well, but that's besides the point.

I remember watching Nixon in high school, and finding the picture to be virtually incomprehensible. Now that I know a great deal about the guy, the film makes a bit more sense (or at least as much sense as an Oliver Stone film can make). Similarly, W. isn't much of a survey course on the last eight years. Absent are references to the questionable legitimacy of the 2000 election, 9/11 (except in passing), the administration's scandalous retribution against Joe Wilson for questioning 2003's yellow cake uranium claim (including the indictments that followed), and the botched reaction to 2005's New Orleans disaster, arguably the key incident in Bush's Presidency from which his approval rating never recovered. I suspect Stone knows that these things will be fresh in the minds of anyone who buys a ticket, and as such he decided he didn't need to reference them too directly. That's fine for now, but I have a feeling that much will be lost on future generations who will understand little of what Stone was getting at.

I think there's a great movie or two that can be made about George W. Bush's life and time in office, but I really don't believe that now is the time to make it. Was Bush's Presidency a horrible, catastrophic failure internationally, domestically, and just in the last few weeks, on a global-financial level? Probably, but it's impossible at this point to gauge what ramifications his decisions and policies will have on world for the long term. History may not be much more kind to Bush than political analysts are being now, but at least they'll have some comprehensive perspective, which is something, strangely, that W., the film, does not.

October 5, 2008

Religulous (10/05/08)

Lettergrade: C

I never miss an episode of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, but I tune-in knowing full-well that Maher's show is to political debate as the World Wrestling Federation is to professional sports. That is to say, the show is blustery and fun, but basically for entertainment purposes only. Maher's guests are either there to agree with what he and the audience already think or to serve as feeble ambassadors for the conservative right who are basically there to get punched in the face.

I have pretty similar feelings about Maher's new documentary, Religulous, as well. It's sorta Maher's attempt to make a Michael Moore style discussion piece about the broad, broad topic of faith and organized worship, only with a little less objectivity, if you can believe it. Maher's key point is that it's stupid. He feels that way when the first frame appears, and hasn't changed by the time the credits roll. And apart from underlining some of the well-known hypocrisies within Judeo-Christian religion and its many subsets, he doesn't really find a way to approach the material in a way that's enlightening, comprehensive, or persuasive. It's an entertaining picture, mind you, but I'm not convinced that a single bit of it will change anyone's mind about anything.

Although I'm not terribly religious myself, I - like a lot of people I know - have no problem with religion in general provided it is not used as an excuse to make life difficult for another group of people, particularly if you're gay, or if you worship another god, etc. Although he never addresses this in the film, I suspect Maher's key issues with religion center around the guilt it can produce (doubly so if you're Catholic, which Maher's father was), and with the 13% of the country who tend to vote primarily with religious issues and against their self-interests.

Part of what struck me about this film is how big of an asshole Maher is to the people he interviews. I have no problem with Maher picking on Televangelists, politicians, and people who preach intolerance, but I found myself squirming more than once when he assaulted seemingly benign people on the street. What about the guy who runs a second-hand store for Jews For Jesus who says he's convinced there's something better for him in the afterlife? "Well if that's true," Maher counters, "why don't you just kill yourself right now?" I don't know much about that organization, but if the guy deserves to be treated with that kind of cruelty, the film sure doesn't help you understand that before Maher goes on the attack.

Maher also visits a small church at a North Carolina truck stop, presumably with the idea that he can get some laughs out of the truckers who merely want to attend some kind of service while on their way from one spot to the next. He similarly drops in on Orlando, Florida's Holyland And Gospel Tour theme park, at which actors recreate the Crucifixion thrice daily. I've gotta admit that this last one is pretty fucking crazy, but again I bristle at Maher picking on the actors in the show and assaulting tourists who just happened to be visiting that day. Maher comes out ahead in the verbal sparring, of course, but that may not be surprising as he's hosted late-night chat shows since 1994 and has been a professional comedian for much longer.

While he's doing all this, other topics go woefully under-explored. I was really interested, for example, when Maher told one of his victims about Mithra, a Persian deity who lived some time before Jesus was thought to, and who shares virtually the same life story, right up to his crucification and resurrection a few days later. Mithra's not alone: There are many Messiah figures throughout the history of religion who all have similar biographies, not the least of whom is King David from the Bible's own Old Testament, who has many of Jesus's admirable qualities, but many many flaws on top of that. If there's a case to be made for looking at the Bible as a series of complex metaphors on how one's life ought to be lived, rather than as a literal truth, I suspect it lies first in educating people about what Christianity has in common with religions that predate it. That aside, though, what about the fact that the Bible's key themes are about tolerance, love, acceptance, and forgiveness... key tenants that certain practitioners of it seem to forget when pushing certain agendas.

Again, the flick has plenty of laughs and occasionally some good food-for-thought, but by the time Maher gets to his big apocalyptic rant at the end of the movie, he acts like something important has been achieved, and I frankly have no idea of what he thinks that something might be. Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe any one movie can single-handedly unsort these issues anyway, but by playing picture more to a broad audience rather than to people who probably already shared Maher's opinion going in, it might have at least done a little more than preach to the converted.

August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder (08/17/08)

Lettergrade: C

The lead-up to the release of Tropic Thunder had me suspicious for two key reasons. The first is that DreamWorks started advertising the movie early and heavily. History has taught me that this is usually a sign that the studio's plan is to sell as many tickets as it can the first weekend, knowing that once word gets out, people will avoid it like tainted meat. Look no further than this summer's The Love Guru, 2006's Nacho Libre, or the collected screen work of Owen Wilson and Adam Sandler to see this release-model at work. Awful movies all, where the studio followed the "cash and dash" technique of milking the opening weekend as much as possible before quickly skirting to DVD.

The other thing that made me leery is the film's director / co-writer / star, Ben Stiller. I've disliked Stiller pretty much since I first became aware of him, way back when he was a writer and bit-player on Saturday Night Live in the early 90s. Although he's made pictures that I genuinely enjoy, I find that his comedy is an exercise is over-exertion and desperate self-aggrandizement with little substance to keep the jokes going past a few minutes.

"But the trailers are really funny," people would counter when I'd present these arguments. I must admit that they are, and as it turns out the film itself has many really funny scenes too. Nevertheless, I have to say that much of the really good material is significantly diminished by having been seen in the ads for months. If you liked those initial trailers, the film offers a bit more of the same, but of course with the freedom to be a little dirtier and more extreme. As a cohesive movie, though, it doesn't quite hold up all the way through.

Perhaps it is telling that the best parts of Tropic Thunder are the fake trailers at the beginning and the scenes that happen to include Robert Downey Jr., who plays an intense Australian Method actor, who has "blackened" himself up to play the delightfully tasteless African American "Sgt. Lincoln Osiris" in the film-within-the-film. Compare that, however, with Pineapple Express, another very funny film, which is extremely entertaining and inventive throughout while simultaneous telling a complete story.

Consider Tropic Thunder's odd approach of giving many of its side-characters unnecessary sub-plots and character arcs that don't seem to exist for reasons other than to pad the film out to 2 hours. The story-line is essentially a standard Three Amigos! tale where a bunch of prima-donna actors think they're shooting a war movie when in fact they've stumbled into the real thing. Nevertheless the bit-characters are given lots of business which is neither intended to be especially funny nor is it consequential to the plot. Part of this, of course, is to showcase the all-star cast that Stiller was able to put together, but wouldn't it be funnier to have guys like Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Crusie show up for a short-and-sweet scene or two and then go away rather than hang around needlessly for the whole movie? And for that matter, wouldn't a movie like this be funnier at 90 minutes than at 115 anyway?

There's something about that last part - the thing about celebrity cameos - that bothers me on a deeper level. I mean, the film's whole premise is that it's a comedy action flick with a big "fuck you" attitude toward the glitz and schmaltz of the usual Hollywood movie tripe. But the film is shot by primo Hollywood cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, A Thin Red Line), and most of the A-list cast is unrepentantly guilty of appearing in the sorts of the films that much of this picture mocks. Believe me, I love anything that point out the banality and tedium of the establishment as much as anyone, but I'll maintain that it's very hard to do that when you're the establishment. It's like that big speech that John Travolta has at the beginning of Swordfish where he says that Hollywood's problem is that it makes "pure, unadulterated shit." That's right, John; Shit like The General's Daughter, Wild Hogs, and that awful Get Shorty sequel where you were fat and embarrassing. I have a feeling that guys like Cruise and McConaughey in particular decided to appear in Tropic Thunder because their industry pals convinced they it'd make they seem "hip," not because either feels the need to send-up the big, sappy Oscar bait that has made them both rich and famous. Keep an eye on the next few pictures that those guys sign up to do.

I haven't, however, talked much about Stiller himself yet. He pretty much plays it straight in this one, and in fact even removes himself from the action for a good percentage of the movie. I think that was the right approach to take, but a key problem stems from the fact that his leading-man part is not especially interesting. He's more or less your standard Hollywood actor, and because he's pretty much a blank slate who doesn't care about much, its hard, in turn, to care much about what happens to him. I'm not the kind of guy who thinks that every movie has to have relatable characters who grow or "learn something" by the end, but Thunder climaxes in a way that acts like it has done both of those things - a move that seems both hollow and completely without justification.

Not long ago, I saw an old Saturday Night sketch from the late 80s or so where Stiller plays a grown up Eddie Munster (from the 60s TV show), who, still in make-up, appears on a German talk show in a desperate attempt to make a living from the character. It is a funny concept (well, sort of), but once the idea is put into action and you have Eddie Munster sitting out there being interviewed, the joke doesn't have anywhere to go after, like, four seconds. That's the fundamental problem I have with most of Stiller's humor: While conceptually brilliant, it's rarely enough to hold-up during a 7 minute sketch, much less when expanded to a feature's length. Most of his pictures, even ones he only appears in, are based on concepts that similarly can't sustain themselves (What if Robert DeNiro was your prospective financee's father?!?), and Tropic Thunder, for all its virtues, cannot either. That's not to say that the picture is completely without value or anything, but it is one of those movies where you have to take the really good with a fair amount of bad.

August 6, 2008

Pineapple Express (08/06/08)

Although The Dark Knight is (and will likely remain) the movie I've most enjoyed this summer, I'm not lying when I say that Pineapple Express is a close second. The flick starts off in somewhat familiar territory as a slackers-on-the-run-from-the-mob comedy, but then the picture segweys into a completely over-the-top, balls out action-comedy extravaganza as the two leads unwittingly trigger a full-scale drug war. It reminds me of 2007's Hot Fuzz in that the writing is original and fresh and director David Gordon Green's staging is as good as any you'll see in a straight-up action movie, but there's just the right twist of sarcasm and ridiculousness to make everything perversely genius.

I'm not a pot smoker myself, and apart from The Big Lebowski I usually don't like stoner comedies much, but that's not exactly what this movie is. It's more like an extreme hodge-podge of man-on-the-run, super-action, and kung-fu flicks with some relatively inoffensive weed humor thrown in, as opposed to the more typical pot flick about dopey, stoned guys having a low-grade adventure (see How High, Half-Baked, the films of Kevin Smith, and the Cheech & Chong septet).

The script was written by Evan Goldberg and actor Seth Rogen, who also wrote last year's Superbad. Refreshingly, Rogen has put himself in slightly more of a straight-man role this time, playing the more clear-headed of the two stoners opposite James Franco, who really steals the movie as pot-dealer Saul. Reportedly, Rogen wrote the Saul part with himself in mind, but realized in an early read-through that Franco would be much funnier in the role. That's not to say that Rogen didn't give himself a fair share of great lines and moments too, but you also have to award him mucho credit for giving up a plum part in the spirit of making the picture better.

There are a number of wonderful surprises and truly funny scenes in this movie, but in the interest of spoiling as little as possible, I'll keep my comments protectively vague. One observation I will make, though, is that I found it hysterical that a number of plot lines were simply thrown out the window when the show-down neared. The supporting cast is stellar, and the score by Graeme Revell is cheesy and great.

After the movie, Laura and I talked a little about the vague attempt at a "kids, too much pot can lead to bad things" message at various points. I, too, felt that it seemed half-hearted at best, but I'm not sure that impressionable kids will walk away thinking that either of the leads are especially cool guys who are enviable for many reasons anyway.

All in all, Pineapple Express is inventive, crazy, and a hell of a lot of fun. It will make a nice companion piece to Hot Fuzz and Lebowski on my DVD shelf someday... praise which, perhaps, is the highest I can give to any movie, new or old.

Lettergrade: B

July 31, 2008

Stepbrothers (07/31/08)

Lettergrade: F

In Stepbrothers, Will Ferrell and John C. Reily play 40 year-old stepbrothers. Normally this is the part where I'd start to describe the plot a little, but that's pretty much it. The crippling vacuum that dwells where a detectable story-line might have been is filled by many scenes that all work off this same rudimentary joke, and the result a pretty painful 100 minutes. Believe me, I enjoy intentionally stupid movies as much as the next dude, but at the same time there's nothing more tragic than an expensive cinematic jerk-off session for some talented actors who have previously been pretty funny.

It's the third movie that Ferrell has co-written with director (and former Saturday Night Live writer) Adam McKay. The other two were Talladegah Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, which had an absurd slickness that I really enjoyed, and before that Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, which I found frustratingly random and somewhat anemic. The key difference between the two comes down to the presence of a solid hook which drives the plot. My contention is that there doesn't have to be a terribly original or profound device, mind you, just something to keep the silliness moving in a particular direction. Note that Ferrell has made several sports comedies now with plot trajectories virtually identical to that of Talladegah Nights: In Blades Of Glory, Semi-Pro and Kicking And Screaming he plays an arrogant sports star who loses everything, and then must find some way to overcome his issues reclaim his former status having gained valuable perspective on life along the way. It's the most predictable, by-the-numbers horse-shit imaginable, and the screenwriters involved should be ashamed of themselves. NEVERTHELESS, I will say that it is also a basic plot outline which, in spite of its over-use, manages to be somewhat effective in terms of turning what would otherwise be a collection of loosely associated skits into film stories that at least have some shape.

Moving on, though, it's a little disappointing to see John C. Reily, who was so good in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, back playing a slightly beefier version of the supporting roles that he was playing a couple years ago. Another thing that I don't really like in these movies is that there is always, ALWAYS a "wacky cameo" from another active member of the Judd Apatow universe at some point, the modern-day equivalent of having Laverine and Shirley pay a visit to Al's Diner on Happy Days or giving Norm and Cliff from Cheers a layover in the Wings airport. This time, it's Seth Rogen, who has a genuinely amusing bit part to play, but I still think it's needlessly distracting.

Other issues I have with flicks like this are when characters wind up doing something that completely violates the few parameters the movie had bothered to lay out for them. In the film's flaccid attempt at some plot-progression late in the picture, Ferrell asks his brother, whom it has been established he hates more than anyone and anything else in the world, for a job at his company. Although Ferrell is in a fairly tough spot at that point in the movie, it just seems so improbably contrary to everything else we've learned about the guy previously. Things like this really shouldn't bother me, particularly when we're talking about a movie that aims as low as Stepbrothers does, but even a movie that's not intended to be taken seriously needs to take it's own character development seriously on some level. Otherwise what's the point?

Skip puerile junk like this. Don't even rent it.

July 25, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe (07/25/08)

Lettergrade: C-

The first hour or so of The X-Files: I Want To Believe feels sort of like a cheap TV movie knock-off of The Silence Of The Lambs. In it, David Duchovony and Gillian Anderson are called out of retirement (and back to their signature roles) in order to help FBI agent Amanda Peet locate some missing people with an assist from a possible psychic played by Billy Connolly. It isn't until roughly the half-way point that someone suddenly takes defibrillators to the picture and things start getting good, but I'm not entirely sure that the end sum is worth the ticket price.

I was never that into the X-Files TV show. The closest I got to watching it regularly was in college when I'd hang out with a couple on Sunday nights who happened to be fans. Nevertheless, I have the distinct impression that the movie will be a slight disappointment to most of the hardcore devotees and to newcomers alike. The show often dealt with ongoing conspiracies and interconnected mysteries, it seems, and it's a little strange to revive it all five years later for what is essentially a stand-alone installment. Like Indiana Jones 4 earlier this summer, this second X-Files flick's main crime is that it doesn't really advance the lore of the series at all, and as such, you have to wonder why they went through the trouble of making it. It's sort of like they got the band back together, but they're not playing any of their hits.

There's an update of Scully and Mulder's personal relationship, I guess... oh, and you get to see Duchovony wearing a fake beard for a while. Somehow, though, I feel like a movie investigating how that beard mysteriously got approved by the art department would be more interesting than what the film is ultimately about.

In a summer full of wondrously-photographed spectacle like The Dark Knight and even Hellboy II: The Golden Army, it's easy to forget that having virtuoso talent behind the camera is usually a rare and awe-inspiring thing until you see a picture like this which is staged far more conservatively. That's not to say the flick is poorly photographed, but it probably wasn't wise of 20th Century Fox to put the film out between two flashy entries like Batman and The Mummy 3: Curse Of The Jade Scorpion (which, despite how shitty it looks, probably at least makes use of a crane every now and again).

July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight (07/18/08)

Lettergrade: A

The Dark Knight is a better movie than 2005's Batman Begins, which itself was pretty good. Even moreso than its predecessor, this picture feels like a crime drama ala Heat or The Untouchables (with the occasional dash of James Bond) in which Batman also happens to be a key factor, rather than the other way around. That's not to say it doesn't make use of a number of familiar comic book movie cliches, but director / co-writer Christopher Nolan sets it all in a gritty, semi-relatable world not too dissimilar from some of our sketchier cities of today, and that's what makes the difference.

I was talking with my sister the other day, and we realized that this is the first Batman movie in our lifetimes to be more or less a direct sequel to its predecessor. Each new flick in the 80s and 90s seemed to bring with it a completely new look and tone, and nearly as often, a new actor playing the lead. Even 1992's Batman Returns, a rare anomaly in that Michael Keaton agreed to play the role a second time, was such a departure from the first film in terms of art direction, script, and even the general quality of the world Batman exists in, that calling it a "sequel" at all doesn't seem to accurately describe what the movie is in relation to the first. The Dark Knight, not to be confused with the 2001 Martin Lawrence classic Black Knight, benefits greatly from picking up where Batman Begins left off.

Like a number of other excellent part 2s (The Godfather Part II, The Empire Stikes Back, Another Weekend At Bernie's, etc), The Dark Knight ups the ante by taking the proceedings in more of a dark, tragic direction. The criminals and mob-thugs on screen legitimately seem pretty scary, and the Joker's anarchic wave of terror through Gotham City is laced with touches that make it feel like an extreme version of something you might see on CNN. All the details are there to make it visceral and distantly plausible.

The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman movies, none of which I really like watching anymore, all fell victim to letting the bad-guys suck up all the screen time, leaving Batman himself a little underdeveloped. Although Begins avoided this problem, The Dark Knight does not. Bruce Wayne / Batman does have decisions to make in this picture, but the film keeps us largely on outside, abandoning the lengthy, moody passages from the previous flick, and more or less making Batman an agent of action rather than introspection. A similarly "outside" approach was taken with the Joker, who is unnervingly portrayed as a blank slate. You don't know how he became like he is because he keeps telling different stories about his origin. You don't know what he wants because his goal seems to change every few scenes or so, although his general approach of trying to create as much trouble as possible remains constant. The returning cast is excellent, as before, and the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, despite the fact that it had been hyped into the stratosphere before the film's release, is indeed pretty mesmerizing.

One minor complaint is that much of the dialogue, particularly in the first half of the movie, either solely exists in order to advance the plot or to ham-fistedly allude to events that are going to happen later. I'm not saying that throwing in long, rambling speeches ala Quentin Tarantino would have made the movie better, but sentences that were a little more coy might have benefited the script somewhat.

There's also something a little weird about the fact that the Joker and the other bad guys can pretty much make any impossible thing happen with little to no planning. Take, for consideration, a scene early in the flick where a judge is killed while supposedly awaiting her police escort. She gets in her car shortly after starting a trial featuring suspected mob management, and then abruptly gets blown up. So... she didn't have any kind of task force around her after such a high profile case had begun? And what the hell is a wealthy judge with a huge townhouse doing parking her Mercedes on the street after taking on the mob anyway? There are several other instances where Batman foils the Joker's plans, only to realize later that he unknowingly played into some larger, more elaborate plot that the Joker apparently anticipated after clairvoyantly predicting that the first part of his plan would be undone in highly specific, virtually unpredictable way. Well, either that, or the Joker is simply a hell of a contingency planner.

Nevertheless, so much about the movie works so well that it's hard to complain about things like schlocky dialog, loose plotting, and the typically generic score co-composed by shit-maestro Hans Zimmer. The Dark Knight stands firm as one of the best pictures of the summer, and probably the year (although I may be saying something different when I get around to seeing Space Chimps).

July 8, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (7/8/08)

Lettergrade: A-

I didn't like the first Hellboy. In fact, I've tried to watch it several times now and have always been bored out of my fucking mind. I caught an advanced screening of Hellboy II: The Golden Army this week, however, and thought it is a vast improvement over the first, to say nothing of an excellent dark fantasy in its own right.

In the interim between the two Hellboys, director Guillermo del Toro made the acclaimed Pan's Labrynth which, in addition to sucking up awards like a sorority girl during Mardi Gras, won him the freedom to make his next picture pretty much as he pleased. Despite offers to direct Harry Potter 6, I Am Legend, and all other kinds of fantasy pictures, he curiously chose to continue with this series. I must say I didn't understand why until I saw how the movie expands upon and moves away from the material he was working with in the first.

The basic scenario is largely in line with what I remember from that first picture: Hellboy, the ex-pat spawn of of Satan (or something), is fated to bring to about the destruction of the Earth someday. Fortunately, until that happens he's agreed to work for the U.S. Government in a division called the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development ("the BPRD"). Along with other colorful characters like the amphibious Abe Sapien and Hellboy's girlfriend Liz, played by Selma Blair, who can burst into flames at will (sort of like one of the guys from X-Men), the BPRD's purpose is vaguely like that of the Ghostbusters and the Men In Black: They show up when there's been some kind of paranormal disturbance and get everyone's shit in order.

This time, they're trying to stop the androgynous Prince Nuada (played by Luke Goss, although it looks a hell of a lot like Jake Busey under that make-up) from reawakening the fabled "Golden Army" and thus starting a war between the Earth's monsters and humans (in which the human's would likely get their asses handed to them). Nuada himself, looking strongly like a rejected villain from Legend or The Dark Crystal, isn't a terribly interesting bad guy, but the way in which he antagonizes Hellboy for being shunned by both the human and the supernatural worlds gives the movie a lot of unexpected poignancy. He also has a twin sister, Princess Nuala (played by Anna Walton, although I'd swear it's Calista Flockhart), who kindly informs our heroes of the details of the plot in addition to providing a love-interest for Abe. It chills me to the bone to think about a amphibious fish-man trying to make dirty love to a pasty white, anorexic tree-princess, but that's a subject for another essay.

One thing that makes Hellboy II: The Golden Compass really stand out from similar pictures these days is the heavy emphasis on guys-in-suits and puppets. It's so nice to see a scene in a movie where everyone was actually on set interacting, be they latex-clad or not. As in Pan's Labrynth, which feels more like a direct predecessor to this movie than the first Hellboy does, the creatures are unique and imaginative with a lot of personality. There's probably something deeply symbolic in how several of del Toro's creations do not have eyes where traditional beings tend to have them, but I'll be fucked if I know what it is.

The other wonderful emphasis is on elaborate stunt work and well-choreographed fight scenes. There are plenty of sequences where even though we know we're looking at a dude in a mask, he's still doing something that appears incredibly difficult and impressive. I give del Toro a lot of credit for understanding that watching a stuntman in a suit is way more effective than seeing a thousand CG monsters fighting a thousand other CG monsters... the route that most of these movies seem to take.

In fact, I think that sentiment applies to much of what I really liked about this picture. Del Toro went in a very old-school direction with pretty much every aspect of the production. So old school, in fact, that the sets, the monsters, even the lush score by Danny Elfman are brimming with unbridled reverence for the classic Ray Harryhausen pictures of eld. Only the most astute of film nerds will be able to pick up on all the references to Jason And The Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, among others. Hellboy II: The Golden Shower's story, while imaginative, doesn't reinvent the wheel in terms of fantasy-picture plotting, but that's not what del Toro is trying to do anyway. Instead, it is an imaginative revival of that kind of filmmaking, which at the same time manages to be darkly beautiful, and in a very unique way, memorably haunting.

This summer's array of popcorn flicks promised to harken back to my movie-loving youth by producing sequels to long-dormant franchises (Indiana Jones) and offering new if underwhelming spins on tried and true material (Speed Racer and The Incredible Hulk). Leave it to a sequel to a movie I didn't even like in the first place, however, to manage to finally do what those movies could not.

July 5, 2008

Hancock (07/05/08)

Lettergrade: C

Hancock has really gotten its ass reamed out by critics. I actually sort of liked the movie myself, but will admit that the critical rimming has not been administered without just cause. The main problem is that the tone is amazingly erratic. The picture starts as something of a send-up of today's seemingly endless stream of comic-book flicks with PR guy Jason Bateman helping an unlikable, alcoholic superhero (Will Smith, playing the Superman-like title character) win affection from the irate people of Los Angeles. About mid-way through, once Hancock's initial problem has been somewhat remedied, the film moves completely away from any attempt at comedy by introducing some key twists, a bit of nifty superhero mythology of its own, and of course, the necessary elements for an action climax. I enjoyed both "parts" of the movie for different reasons (although the latter part makes for a more worthwhile experience than the first), but I don't think the two make for a terribly happy marriage overall.

The first section of the film would be utterly repugnant if anyone less naturally charismatic than Smith had been in the role. The humor depends on the audience getting a kick from seeing a traditionally iconic, universally loved figure get all sloppy drunk and abusive. While this was used to great effect in Bad Santa, the Bobcat Goldthwait classic Shakes The Clown, and the segment of Superman III where Superman, having been exposed to faulty, man-made kryptonite, acts like a super-dick to everyone, it is merely "functionally entertaining" here. Which is to say not bad but not especially noteworthy either.

There were rumors abound about how the film had been reshot, recut and rescored pretty much right up to point where Columbia Pictures had to release it, and many of them centered around how dark that leading "Superman III" segment should be. About 20 minutes in, for example, a warrant is issued for Hancock's arrest, and Bateman convinces him that it would be good for his public image to accept the consequences of his actions and do time in the slammer. The film is cut to make it look like the warrant was issued due to some property he destroyed earlier, but the film as originally shot apparently had Hancock getting busted after banging an underage girl he picked up in a bar!

Jailbait aside (and who among us hasn't been there?), when the film buckles down and ventures into more familiar superhero territory, there is a neat character arc that deals with Hancock starting to understand where he came from and what his purpose should be. This aspect of the picture appealed to me in the same way that M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable did, and the whole last part of the film and its conclusion are actually pretty cool and engaging.

The movie's crime is not that it tries to introduce satire and parody into an otherwise perfectly acceptable idea for a superhero movie, but that it does it so awkwardly. Bateman's character, for example, wants to change the world for the better and is frustrated that he cannot do so. He works to improve Hancock's public image because he sees in him great potential to do what he cannot. Nevertheless, this thematic point is played largely for its sit-com style absurdity in the first part of the movie, and then pretty much disappears during the second (along with Bateman himself, oddly), before popping back up at the end and making an attempt at being somewhat meaningful.

At the end, Hancock turns out to be a fairly decent movie, but the path it travels to get from the first scene to the last is winding and strange. I guess if nothing else, it's an example of how a highly problematic movie can get reworked into oblivion and not wind up a complete disaster.

July 3, 2008

Wanted (07/03/08)

Lettergrade: C

Wanted takes the anti-society ennui of Fight Club and mixes in the cool-ass, logic-defying style action of the Matrix trilogy. The result is a movie that's mildly fun, but largely empty. These days I don't get excited for films that are about cool shots and shit blowing up (or at least, not as much as I used to), and as such I have to rate this one as a solid "meh." I'm not sorry I saw it, necessarily, but I don't believe my life has been enriched for having bought the ticket either.

Early in the movie, we are introduced to James McAvoy, who's life sucks in the way that angsty, twenty-something movie characters' lives usually do. He hates his obnoxious boss at his monotone job, and his surprisingly attractive girlfriend is secretly banging his astonishingly unattractive friend Barry. One night at a White Hen Pantry, he meets the heavily tatooed Angelina Jolie, who says that his long-absent father was actually a super-secret assassin who was killed the other day in the line of duty. Apparently McAvoy has super-abilities too (such as being able to shoot wings off of flies and jump over tall shit, etc) that he was never aware of until now (for completely unexplored reasons).

After an intense action scene in which dozens of innocent Chicagoans are senselessly killed or injured, McAvoy is introduced to a secret organization calling itself "The Fraternity." Headed by Morgan Freeman, who gets to drop the f-bomb in one scene, they select their targets in a perfectly logical way: They translate irregularities in fabric that comes from a giant, magical loom into binary code, and then use that binary code to come up with names of people that they need to kill for the good of all mankind. Now already I know we're way past the point of all plausibility and credulity here, but I can't help but wonder what happens when names like "Bob Smith" come up. Who do they kill? All of them? Including the Bob Smith who presumably runs the Bob Smith Used Toyota Dealership in La Crescenta? I can't imagine that his death would benefit mankind. In fact, with the great deals on used Toyota Camries that Bob Smith regularly offers, I'd imagine quite the opposite would be true. That aside, though, the movie also claims that the Fraternity has been doing this for "a thousand years." Um... how long has binary code been around for?

Anyway, McAvoy begins an intense training regimen, which largely consists of people beating the living fuck out of him, followed by no actual training. Fortunately, he's able to learn everything he needs to know about being a super-assassin in the course of a six-minute montage, and soon he's off killing people on his own. There are a number of big plot twists thereafter which I will not reveal, but suffice to say that it shatters everything McAvoy thought he knew about the world... yadda, yadda, etc.

Although I had a number of problems with the movie, the big one is that McAvoy, while charismatic, seems to only be interested in joining the Fraternity for shallow reasons... largely because it seems like a cool, self-empowering thing to do. As the movie goes on, avenging his father's death becomes vaguely more important to him, but I wondered if I'd feel same way seeing as this is a father he didn't know, and in fact, never met. I'm not saying that it wouldn't strike an emotional chord with me to be told what McAvoy is told early in the flick, but when it comes down to it, we are talking about a virtual stranger who had zero presence in his life and never made any attempt to be in touch with him.

Aside from the fact that the assassins are taking their orders from fucking cloth, my other main beef is the sheer recklessness on display toward the movie's innocent bystanders. There is an excellent sequence on a commuter train about 2/3rds of the way through the movie, for example, which results in the train skidding off the rails and ultimately plummeting to the rocky canyon below. McAvoy and Jolie make it out alright, but I can't imagine anyone else survived. As my buddy Chris recently pointed out, it's one thing if a terrorist or something causes all that indiscriminate death, but when the good guy is responsible for it and there's no kind of acknowledgment or remorse, it's just kind of fucked up.

Similarly, the big climax of the movie has McAvoy using his super-spy training to kill a warehouse full of people in order to get to the corrupt head of a supposedly good organization. I had conflicting feelings about that too, as all the people who are mowed down seem to basically think that they are good guys doing the right thing.

The movie ultimately ends on something of a glib note, suggesting that Russian director Timur Bekmambetov was more interested in making a picture where cool shit happens than he was in telling a story with any greater meaning. Now that he's proven he can make a good action movie in English, he should probably focus on trying to make one that actually tries to mean something by the end.

June 28, 2008

Wall•E (06/28/08)

Lettergrade: B-

If I felt like breaking things down this way, I'd give the first half of Wall•E an "A" for its visual beauty, the masterful use of music and sound-design, and one of the most unusual and engaging narrative structures I've seen in any animated movie in recent memory. Essentially, it's a lonely robot wordlessly wandering around a decimated Earth that had become so commercialized and polluted that humans had to abandon it.

That said, I would give a solid "meh" to the second half of the movie, wherein our hero robot meets up with the surviving members of the human race, and... well, a lot of familiar plays from the Pixar formula book start bubbling up. Now this being Pixar, the second half, when assessed on its own merits, is still very good, but it just cranks my wank a little that it follows an opening segment that's so promising and original.

What balls for an animated movie (from Disney, no less!) to take a strong stand against extreme consumerism like this! And what a crushing disappointment in the last part of the film when it does what it can to soften the blow with the thin, unconvincing message that the effects of mankind's greed, excess, and disregard for the environment are all reversible.

June 21, 2008

Kung Fu Panda (06/21/08)

Lettergrade: B+

Kung Fu Panda is a beautifully animated, skillfully-told, CG family adventure movie. This flies in face of the usual output from DreamWorks Animation, which traditionally includes a lot of dumbed-down, pop-culture reference heavy junk like Bee Movie, Madagascar, and the first and third Shreks. Although Panda follows the same tried-and-true formula as those movies (take a popular celebrity and anthropomorphize his persona into some lovable fuck-up from the animal kingdom), something about it actually works this time.

The philosophy spouted by the geriatric Turtle who oversees the warrior clan feels wise and meaningful... not wafer-thin as if the screenwriters merely copied it off the take-out menu from the Kung Pao Bistro while struggling to meet a deadline. The character animation is detailed and rich, the action scenes are vibrant and exciting, and Jack Black as the Panda is likable and endearing. There's a lot to like about this movie, and its a giant leap forward for the studio.

June 19, 2008

Get Smart (06/19/08)

Lettergrade: C+

The original Get Smart! TV show, as conceived by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, was not a send-up of any specific movie or character, but of the seemingly endless stream of spy shows that populated network television in the 60s. WFLD in Chicago reran it twice a day when I was a kid, and mysteriously it was one of the few shows that my father, who tended to think that most television was bullshit, would actually sit down and watch.

In it, Don Adams played agent Maxwell Smart of C.O.N.T.R.O.L., a top secret governmental agency charged with the task of countering the cold-war efforts of Russia's K.A.O.S.. The trick, of course, was that he was also a complete idiot who fell ass-backward into success each week. This new Get Smart movie, starring Steve Carell in the Adams role, places Smart in a "James Bond light" style spy-flick of the 90s and today. In doing so, it makes for an enjoyable action-comedy that stays in keeping with the spirt of the show while not busting its cinematic nuts to recreate it.

A perusal of will reveal that the movie has taken some critical heat for approaching the material like this, but I personally feel it was the right way to go. Adaptations of TV programs can fall into one of two major traps: They can adhere to the show closely and risk being a hollow, overly-reverential echo of its source material (as seen in those fucking horrifying Flintstones movies and in shit like Starksy And Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard), or they can get so far away from the original idea that you have to wonder how the original title still applies (like in the bizarrely conceptual Bewitched remake). Oddly, Get Smart follows in the tradition of really good adaptations like The Untouchables and The Fugitive in that the filmmakers simply kept elements from the series that they liked, but primarily focused on functioning as a movie first and as a TV adaptation second. The loving nods to the show reawakened some fond (if fuzzy) memories for me, but at the same time I appreciated that the movie doesn't depend purely on nostalgia in order to work.

Get Smart also revises Max's origin story a bit. In the movie, he's a skilled analyst who aspires to be a field agent, but is not promoted until a security breach reveals the identities of C.O.N.T.R.O.L.'s operatives to the international community. He's paired with the seasoned Agent 99 (the ever-fetching Anne Hathaway) and sent to Russia to track down some loose nukes. It's interesting that Carell's Maxwell Smart is actually a very intelligent guy who stumbles through things due to inexperience, over-zealousness, and bad luck more than incompetence. As wonderful as Don Adams' Smart could be at times, the show never suggested that he was learning much from his constant fuck-ups. While that made for some damn fine television, I'm skeptical that it would play well when expanded to a feature's length and especially with someone other than Adams in the role.

The plot isn't terribly sophisticated as far as spy movies go, but it is plausible enough to hold water: A key thing that a lot of parody movies seem to miss. My theory is that even if it's supposed to be a "stupid" movie, everything still needs to revolve around a worthwhile plot. The one weird note that the movie strikes centers around Hathaway's character getting emotional about some recent plastic surgery she's had. That, combined with some lousy, melodramatic musical score by Trevor Rabin, make for the film's less successful moments.

The flick was directed by Peter Segal, who's film career began with The Naked Gun 33 1/3 in 1994. The Naked Gun series was often accused of ripping Get Smart! off back in the day, and as such Segal seems right at home with the material here. Astute viewers will even catch a few minor jokes he's recycled from flicks he made in the interim, particularly from the guiltily pleasureful Tommy Boy, a film which contains what is arguably David Spade's finest screen performance, and from another shame-based favorite: My Fellow Americans, featuring wonderful performances James Garner and Jack Lemmon as ex-Presidents on the run from the law.

Segal's got a great sense of how to showcase the comedic talents of his leads, and Get Smart is a stylish entry on his resume that is confident, amusing, and has a couple nifty action scenes. There have been funnier spy-comedies than this one, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours.

June 17, 2008

The Incredible Hulk (06/17/08)

Lettergrade: C-ish

Several reviews favorably compare The Incredible Hulk with last month's Iron Man, and declare it a great improvement over 2003's Hulk movie directed by Ang Lee. I thoroughly disagree on both counts: Iron Man earned way more respect from me as a smart, fun summer superhero flick than this picture, and although I know I'm in the extreme minority on this, I thought Ang Lee's Hulk was dark, sophisticated, and excellent in ways that this movie doesn't even get close to.

Alas, Lee's movie also didn't make enough money for Universal CEO Ron Meyer to wipe his dick with, so while it may be surprising that The Incredible Hulk was green-lit at all, it's perhaps not surprising that pretty much every facet of the 2003 movie has been discarded. Gone is Lee (replaced by The Transporter 2's Louis Leterrier), the original film's cast (with Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt stepping into the roles played by Eric Bana, Jennifer Connoly, and Sam Elliott in 2003), and the moody script dealing with childhood psychological damage and biological identity. What's left is a pretty straight-forward sci-fi action movie. It's alright, I suppose, but after stellar film adaptations of Marvel properties like X Men 2, Spider-Man 2, and this film's predecessor, its hard for me to get too excited about pictures which do exactly what you might expect them to do and not a whole lot more.

Curiously, The Incredible Hulk could be seen as a "sort of" sequel to Lee's film, but with a slightly rewritten origin story. At the end of the 2003 movie, Bruce Banner goes into hiding in South America, and that's where he is where this one starts. He's been living with the gamma-poisoning that causes him to Hulk-Out occasionally for about five years, and as he did in the 70s TV show starring Bill Bixby, Banner lives off-the-grid, desperately searching for a cure while being pursued by the insidious General 'Thunderbolt' Ross (Hurt). Regrettably absent is the character of David Banner, the Hulk's father, who was previously played by Nick Nolte in 2003. Since they were recasting everyone anyway, I was secretly hoping that Gary Busey would take over the role for this one, but I guess dreams don't always come true.

Nevertheless, despite the vague sense of continuity every now and again, the movie proceeds pretty much as an independent entity. General Ross manages to track Banner down (a big fucking surprise there), and enlists a new character played by Tim Roth to tranquilize and take him into custody. When Roth sees the Hulk, he wants to be genetically modified too for some inexplicable reason. I don't want to give away all the subtle plot nuance here, but the end of the movie has the surprisingly articulate "Abomination" squaring off against the Hulk in downtown NYC ala Superman squaring off against General Zod and company in downtown Metropolis at the end of Superman II. Also like Superman II, both cities look a hell of a lot like Toronto.

The best scenes in the movie center around Norton and Tyler's relationship, but they're not really enough to keep everything cookin'. Another bright point is Tim Blake Nelson, blissfully overacting as a helpful scientist who corresponds with Norton via a secure instant messenger while trying different solutions in his own lab.

Again, everything is pretty straight-forward and economical, and in a way that's part of the problem. There are three Hulk-based action scenes in the movie, but apart from the first one (which includes a nifty chase through Rio de Janerio) none of them are especially inspiring, nor are they particularly engrossing. Will the Hulk get caught or won't he get caught? Either way, it doesn't really make much difference.

I never read comic books with any frequency when I was younger, so perhaps my perspective is misguided here and this is exactly the kind of Hulk movie that Joe Marvel would want to see. I'll take the layered complexity of the Ang Lee movie. I completely understand why it didn't do well financially (and why the public, at large, seemed to generally despise it), but speaking for myself, I'd rather see a movie like that than something wafer-thin like this.

May 21, 2008

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (05/21/08)

Lettergrade: C

I enjoyed the fourth Indiana Jones movie, but with the disclaimer that my expectations going in were fairly modest. I had hoped for some good action scenes, a little humor, and for the theme music to kick in whenever Indy beat someone senseless or used his whip to accomplish some menial task. The film certainly met all those expectations, and was, for the most part, what it was advertised to be. I will admit, however, that in spite of adequately scratching the Indiana Jones itch, the film isn't really all that interesting in and of itself. That's not to say that it's a bad movie, really, but it's also fair to say that it's not quite in the same league as the others.

A lot of the blame for this falls on the Crystal Skull itself, the origins of which I could give two shits about, and for which the consequences of it falling into the wrong hands are unclear at best and seemingly inconsequential at worst. Roger Ebert likes to write that a James Bond movie is only as good as its villain. The Indiana Jones metric seems to be more dependent on how engaging the supernatural object at the center of the plot is. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail both worked wonderfully because they had this creepy Judeo-Christian historical mystique to draw from. The second movie's Shankara Stones plot-device, based on Hindi myth, was a bit less successful, but perfectly acceptable when I saw the movie as a kid. Technically speaking, Indy 4's explanation about what the Crystal Skulls are and where they came from isn't much crazier than most of what happens in the Holy Bible, but somehow it doesn't feel as weighty or important as the early film's counterparts.

One thing I will say is that the movie has more of a "for old time's sake" feeling to it than the other sequels have. It's been about 19 years since the third movie, so maybe that's somewhat unavoidable. There are also, however, three or four extremely silly moments which contributed to the bits that most rubbed me the wrong way. Before I saw the movie, my sister sent me a text saying, "beware of the monkeys!" Man, she wasn't kidding.

Petty bitching aside, though, the pleasure of this new movie comes from seeing Harrison Ford back in his signature role. I must say that I was a little apprehensive about him doing so when the picture was first announced as I had no desire to see a geriatric Indiana Jones who's addicted to prescription muscle relaxants running around and trying to relive the glory days. Luckily, Ford managed to sober up just enough to deliver his lines with the same hearty sarcasm and crackling timing that made him a huge star in the 80s. He's the main event in the movie, and he's simply great. Anything else about Crystal Skull, however disappointing, is strangely not as relevant.

I'm not going to get into the plot here, largely because I'm not quite sure what the fuck happened in order to get Indy from point A to point B myself. New to the cast this time, however, is Shia LeBeouf as a young greaser who helps enlist Indy for the ensuing adventure. Cate Blanchett plays the main villain, a Ukrainian intelligence officer and leader of the Russians, the movie's substitute for the earlier films' Nazi heavies. Also along for the ride is John Hurt, wasted in the role of a brain-addled former colleague, and Ray Winstone as 'Mac,' another long-time Indy acquaintance and fellow treasure hunter. On the theatrical poster, Winstone wears a ridiculous beret, which falsely led me to believe that he would be doing a Dom Deluise emulation throughout the movie, but alas it was not to be.

The key bit of casting, though, is Karen Allen, who returns to the part she played in Raiders 27 years ago. While I like Allen, the presence of her character in the script and in the film is one of the main things that really chaps my ass about this whole deal. The reason is because the Indiana Jones of the earlier flicks existed as a dashing, philandering rogue who lived for adventure and drifted from one crazy chapter of his life to the next. Although we met his father in part 3, there was never a sense that a traditional domestic life was something he wanted or thought much about. With Allen's arrival, Crystal Skull somewhat becomes about Indy reclaiming lost love and putting together a family unit. While on some level it's nice to think about him finally hooking up with the girl he loved so long ago, at the same time it introduces an Indiana Jones who contemplates old age, retirement, and spending his remaining years alone. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I prefer to think of him more as a guy who never thought much about tomorrow than as a character who could smoothly integrate into On Golden Pond.

Although the movie's not a disaster by any means, I've gotta say that I'm a little adverse to the idea of picking up popular characters from 20 years back or so and sending them on another adventure. James Bond can do it in part because they switch up actors every decade or so, giving them the perfect excuse to modernize and somewhat shuck the constraints of what came before. On the whole, though, I really cannot believe that the general public spends a lot of time wondering about the further activities of Rambo, or the Terminator, or 'Crocodile' Dundee, or Hannibal Lector, or The Godfather, or the Blues Brothers some 15 years or so after their film franchises have moved onto video. I didn't mind Rocky 6 or Die Hard 4 (and I loved 2003's Freddy Vs. Jason!), but will contend that many of those beloved movies were what they were in part because they existed in a particular time.

In the 80s, an era of post Star Wars style big-budget spectacle and special-effects laden excess, Indiana Jones was the Rolls Royce. On the set of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas must have been laughing their heads off every day with the old-time kitsch and adventure movie cliches the material permitted to revive. These days, however, both Spielberg and Lucas are different filmmakers than they were then. Not necessarily better or worse... simply with interests and priorities that are different from those one might expect from up-and-coming filmmakers in their 30s. For some reason, the Indiana Jones schtick doesn't quite work as well now... either because the actors are a little older, or the times are a little more cynical. Or perhaps it's because all that can apply to the filmmakers responsible and to me, the late 20s ticket-buyer, as well.

May 6, 2008

Iron Man (05/06/08)

Lettergrade: B

Hollywood, having launched successful franchises based on Marvel comic book signatures like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, and X-Men, has recently turned its check-book toward lesser known characters that I frankly have never fucking heard of. In a way, however, not knowing anything about who Iron Man is and what his deal might be made the film a bit more enjoyable for me. In fact, very enjoyable.

It's not an over-the-top, balls-out, action-n'-set-piece extravaganza, but it has some good humor, a nifty story, and several satisfying action scenes. I tend to feel that popcorn movies these days really over-exert themselves and needlessly try to be a little bigger, lengthier, and more explosive than whatever picture was out last year. I remember watching Mission: Impossible 3 and feeling utterly exhausted: We were, like, 30 minutes into the movie and there had already been what felt like four huge action scenes. Iron Man doesn't do that: Refreshingly, it brings things down a notch and in doing so provides Joe Audience with more of a reason to give a shit about the stuff that's happening between fight scenes.

The key thing that makes Iron Man work is the cast. Drug-addicted alcoholic womanizing actor Robert Downey Jr. plays drug-addicted alcoholic womanizing billionaire Tony Stark. He's a defense contractor who inherited Stark Industries after his father's death. He also inherited his dad's old business partner: Jeff Bridges who plays "Obadiah Stane." In case that name doesn't sound explicitly evil enough for you, they made him bald with a big-ass Dr. Andrew Weil style beard. In fact, anyone who's bald in this movie turns out to be blatantly evil, but that's another issue altogether. Gweneth Paltrow rounds out the cast as Pepper Potts, Stark's personal assistant, who is mysteriously in love with him despite the fact that she's seen him blow through countless one-night stands and meaningless hookups over the years. I guess she either has really loose standards or the threat of herpes isn't part of the Marvel Universe. In either case, she's cute and good in the role, so what the hell.

In a way, the premise has similarities to Batman, a DC Comics property, in that a billionaire with no particular super ability decides to use his wealth and ingenuity to fight crime. Iron Man, however, is more geared toward kicking the asses of terrorists and world-villains... he doesn't seem to be interested in muggings and bank robberies the way the Dark Knight and Superman are.

Stark is in a Generic Middle Eastern Country demonstrating a new weapon, when his motorcade is ambushed, and he is taken prisoner. Long story short, he winds up building an Iron suit to help engineer his escape, and upon returning to the US, he realizes that he can no longer supply the world with ingenious weapons that kill people. Yadda, yadda, yadda... superhero, etc.

The fact that Iron Man is not as iconic, beloved, or even as known within the superhero community does nothing but benefit the picture. It led the studio to make an unusual choice in directors, Jon Favreau, and allowed the screenwriters to come up with a loose, breezy script. Movies like Superman Returns are so rife with fan-speculation, expectation, and internet-reaction that they almost buckle under the weight of it all. Since a new Batman movie can usually expect to do good business, the budgets get astronomical and the studio micro-management is often appalling. Of course, modest budgets and low expectations didn't help Ghost Rider, Dare Devil or The Fantastic Four end up any less shitty, but I will contend that they had more of a fighting chance than Batman & Robin did.