December 28, 2013

Her (12/28/2013)

Lettergrade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 25, 2013

American Hustle (12/25/2013)

Lettergrade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (12/21/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 18, 2013

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

Lettergrade: D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 14, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (12/14/2013)

Lettergrade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 15, 2013

Gravity (10/15/2013)

Lettergrade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 8, 2013

Enough Said (10/08/2013)

Lettergrade: C-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 29, 2013

Iron Man 3 (09/28/2013)

Lettergrade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My post on Iron Man 1

My post on Iron Man Deuce

My post on The Avengers

July 30, 2013

The Wolverine (07/30/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim (7/19/2013)

Lettergrade: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 17, 2013

Man Of Steel (06/17/2013)

Lettergrade: C+

Wow, a good number of my friends seemed to really hate Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel over the weekend. Maybe knowing that when I went to see it myself today is what softened me up a bit: I really didn't think the movie was all that bad… In fact, I was surprised to find that I even kind of liked it for certain segments.

The main thing that cut through my cynicism, I think, is the stellar casting and a handful of really strong character moments spread throughout. The downside is that those moments are often way too brief and far between. Since the movie spends so much time detailing the intricacies of Krypton society at the beginning (backstory which I don't think I was ever all that curious about to begin with), and so much time in the back half with the big, kinetic, highly-destructive action sequences (where two indestructible guys punch each other endlessly, destroying most of Metropolis in the process), you don't really get much of a look at what Henry Cavill's take on Superman really is.

He seems to have found a performance that smoothly blends the character's wholesome boy-scout'dness of Christopher Reeve's portrayal with kind of a tortured altruistic loner quality… Every time you get a flash of what he's doing with the character, you really want to see more of it. When we first meet him (as an adult) he is a transient, wandering from place to place and helping people however he can, much like Bruce Banner or The A Team. The movie, of course, charts his decision to emerge into a public figure and become the Superman that we know. If it has a failing, it's that it severely shortchanges detailing who Superman is in favor of showing us scenes of what Superman can do.

I couldn't help but think of the Superman movies I knew as a kid more or less constantly during this one… not only because the film retells Superman's origin story a bit, but also because it brought back General Zod, Superman II's primary baddie (so memorably played by Terence Stamp) and recast him with Michael Shannon (of Revolutionary Road and HBO's Boardwalk Empire). Shannon is fine in the role, but a curious pattern of 2013 is that both this movie and Star Trek Into Darkness have recast incredibly memorable screen villains for their franchise revivals… moves which seem highly questionable to me because it's pretty tough to go up against people's fond memories of screen heavies of cinema past.

Along those lines, I think the movie did make a serious tactical error in retreading so much material from the earlier Superman flick. Whenever Man Of Steel had a scene that has an equivalent in the 1978 version (such as all the origin stuff, scenes with ma and pa Kent in Kansas, any verbal throw-down with Zod, et al), I almost always felt that the 1978 version was better. Although Kevin Costner is one of the strongest parts of this new movie, Jonathan Kent's death wasn't handled as well for me as it was 35 years ago. Having him die in a twister, much like the dad in the movie Twister did, lacks the simplicity and poignant beauty of Jonathan dying more or less of natural causes. "All those things I can do... All those powers…" laments Christopher Reeve's Clark in the earlier flick, "and I couldn't save him." Superman could rush in to pull someone away from a tornado (although I understand that the point of the scene is that Jonathan is adamant that he not do so), but he can't save someone from a fatal heart attack, a sullen reminder of the fragility of human life that hangs over much of the 78 picture and seems to guide much of the earlier Superman's character.

My other main thought is that doing an extended sequence on Krypton right at the start of the movie (much like the 78 one did) invited unfavorable comparisons to the earlier picture, and more than that, was simply a little confusing and kind of boring. I believe that if you were to lop that opening segment off and start the picture with Clark saving the people on the oil rig, the whole first part of the flick would have been significantly more gripping. All the Krypton backstory could have been revealed much later in the picture, when Clark himself learns about it. It might not have worked, but I think it'd be a lot more engaging than starting the movie with a bunch of bulky, lukewarm "Lord Of The Rings In Space" bullshit.

In the last 7 years, we've gotten two very different examples of how these movies can go. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns payed reverential tribute to the earlier movies in 2006… very much to a fault, I thought. It kept the musical themes and a lot of the same set designs from the earlier picture for no clear reason, struggled to establish awkward continuity links with 1980's Superman II, and cast a Superman for the primary reason that Brandon Routh (an actor I like, but who was a little miscast and underused) resembles the late Christopher Reeve.

Now in 2013, Synder's Man Of Steel pretty much ignores the Christopher Reeve version completely, reinventing and rewriting aspects of the franchise as it sees fit. To tell you the truth, I almost always prefer that another entry in a mega-franchise like this has the freedom to do its own thing and find its own voice rather than to be encumbered by past installments. Although I am not entirely in love with this version, I'm glad that it got away with doing what it wanted to.

MOS is not my ideal version of what a Superman movie is and can be, but it does take the Superman mythos and adapts it to the bleak, modern post Batman Begins style of superhero picture with some moderate success while still hanging on to enough of what makes Superman Superman to keep me interested. I've got several beefs with it, sure - and frankly, I can't imagine a scenario anywhere down the line where I'd ever want to watch this movie again - but if we're talking about a decent few hours at the cinema, it didn't let me down.

A few additional thoughts:

-When Zod and his army are imprisoned and sent to the Phantom Zone early in the picture, am I the only one who thought that it looked like they had been encased in individual flying space dildos?

-Another example of questionable production design: Krypton is a super advanced society, but they communicate with each other using Pin Point Impression toys that you can buy through the Sharper Image catalogue? (with compliments to Mike S. for the joke)

-At the end of the movie, when Clark starts at the Daily Planet a few days after the picture's big action climax, it seems that everything's back to normal... the slimy co-worker asks Lois if she wants to go to the game because the MLB decided not to cancel their schedule in light of the GIANT FUCKING ALIEN INVASION THAT DESTROYED MOST OF METROPOLIS AND KILLED COUNTLESS THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE.

June 14, 2013

This Is The End (06/14/2013)

Lettergrade: D+

During the end credits of This Is The End, I learned that the movie is based on a 2007 short film called Seth And Jay Vs. The Apocalypse. I haven't seen that earlier version, but I suspect this material would be really funny at a short film's length… When forced to come up with enough padding to get to 90 some minutes, it's a slow, meandering slog briefly punctuated by a few good laughs.

One of the online critics I really like described the movie as a 90 minute in-joke. I think that's right on… the flick has actor Seth Rogen (who also co-wrote and co-directed) playing a narcissistic version of himself - actor Seth Rogen - alongside Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride (among others) who all do the same.

The idea is that Jay, a successful actor in Canada, has come to L.A. to visit his old friend and former Undeclared co-star Rogen , but is dragged to a wild party at James Franco's house that he doesn't really want to go to. Whilst on a cigarette run, the ground shakes and blue light shoots down from the sky, beckoning all those who are worthy up to heaven, and leaving all others to suffer in the chaotic, fiery wasteland below. Noticeably, Seth and Jay are NOT among those pulled up to heaven. When they get back to the raging party at Franco's house, no one at the party knows that anything has happened because none of them were among the chosen either. Rather quickly, the movie finds our half dozen heroes taking refuge in Franco's mansion… Things on the outside only seem to be getting worse and worse, and the tensions and suspicions in the house steadily rise. All in all, it's kind of like a less funny version of Stephen King's The Mist.

At times, aspects of the movie seem like a semi-brillant and very dark take-down of the thinness and excessive bullshit of celebrity culture. That's the kind of ballsy subversive statement I could really get behind in a movie like this! Unfortunately, those sentiments never stick around for long… this is a wide-release Hollywood picture we're talking about, after all, and as the story continues, it kind of becomes clear that, yeah, these people are a little bad, maybe, but really they're just a good deed or two away from maybe gaining access to the pearly gates themselves.

And that's the thing that kind of bothers me most about this movie, on a philosophical level. If you're going to go down this path, it just feels wrong to build in an escape clause so at least some of the characters can get to a happy ending. When all the boys in the house speculate about what the hell is going on, Baruchel is the one who realizes that the scenario they've found themselves in is a lot like the end of the world as described in the book of Revelations. It's a legitimately creepy moment that reminded me a bit of a similarly scary beat in the first Ghostbusters movie where Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson are in the Ecto 1 together, talking about the same part of the Bible. Unlike Ghostbusters, though, This Is The End never really finds a way to pivot back away from its chilling Biblical reference and make it work toward the conclusion. Even if each of the guys had embodied a different one of the deadly sins or something else quasi-Biblical like that, I would have been a little more cool with all screen time where people are just kind of waiting around, but I don't think the movie has that kind of sub-layer going on.

When Baruchel and the others realize that they're still on the smokey remains of Earth because they just haven't been very good people, how are we supposed to read that? The in-joke might be, "well, this is funny because Jonah Hill and James Franco aren't really like that." Seth Rogen - the real one, I mean - might know that… and their real-life friends might know that… but is there a laugh there for most of the rest of the population who, outside of their movie roles, may only "know" those guys from occasional appearances on Conan? I'm not sure that there is… there's the rhythm, cadence, and attitude of a joke there, but what's the joke?

Why am I going on about this, though? I have a feeling that the concept of this movie was born when Rogen, co-screenwriter/co-director Evan Goldberg, and a bunch of their friends were sitting around one night saying, "You know what would be funny…?" I don't think there's any big attempt at anything deep here, despite the fact that deep subjects are alluded to semi-frequently. And in the end (of the movie), the Backstreet Boys are performing in heaven and all seems to be juuuuuust fine. No lessons, morals, point, or purpose for anything you just saw. I feel like they could have done a little more with the premise - I don't think it's ever even mentioned that several of them are of different religions while others still are very public atheists, for example - but hey, it's not my movie: I was just dumb enough to pay 8.50 to see it.

April 4, 2013

Moonraker (Bond #11) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

The general consensus among those who know the James Bond franchise well seems to be that 1979's Moonraker is one of the shittier entries. Having just seen it myself (albeit over several sittings), I have to agree.

But before you think I'm just jumping on the hate wagon here, I should emphasize that I started to dislike the movie well before I got to the notorious third act where Bond is in space firing lasers. That's incredibly stupid, don't get me wrong… but even if we ignore that whole section, I still think the movie suffers from having an unclear, meandering plot and an excessive case of the sillies.

Watching all the Bond movies in order as an adult has been revelatory because I've found that more often than not, the movies have layers and complexity and cohesion that I just didn't pick up on when I was a teenager. That's doubly true of the three Roger Moore flicks that came before this one - Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me… all of which somewhat upended my earlier impression that the Moore era was defined by hammy one-liners and semi-nonsensical plots. Those earlier three movies aren't really like that, I've found, but Moonraker is the first Bond I've encountered in my 11 movie journey thus far that kind of fits my mental criteria of what the series can be at its worst.

One of the key things about this movie that's indicative of went wrong in terms of thinking and concept is the incessant inclusion of "Jaws," the terrifying, scene-stealing steel-toothed thug who first appeared in the previous movie. Bond's first scene in this one finds him having to make a hasty exit from an airplane sans parachute. Once Bond jumps out, it is revealed that Jaws was on the plane too and is coming after him (although we didn't see him at all in the previous bit). Why did Jaws decide to stay hidden during the fist-fight that happened on the plane before everyone bailed? The mission Bond was on seems to have had nothing to do with him, so why was he even up there in the first place? And where's HIS parachute? One gets the feeling that Jaws has just been following Bond around more or less continuously since The Spy Who Loved Me came out, which frankly makes me think of him as a fairly lousy killer.

Right away, though, bringing Jaws back seems like a weird thing for the franchise to do. The series hadn't really continued a secondary bad-guy from one movie to the next before… Blofled appears in five of the first seven Bond pictures (sometimes only briefly and with his face obscured), but generally speaking, once the end credits roll, that's the end for Kerim and Oddjob and Largo, and Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd… usually because they're dead, of course, but you know what I'm saying.

Anyway, having Jaws pop up pretty much every time there's an action scene throughout Moonraker - often without much logic or purpose - seems to suggest that the filmmakers had a "if-they-liked-it-last-time, we'll-give-em'-a-bigger-helping-this-time" approach to making this movie, and that's a big part of what feels lazy and uninspired. Indeed, everything is "more"… more exotic locations, more action scenes, more double-entendre, more gadgets, more women for Bond to sleep with, and the most deadly of all, more of the camp that would somehow become synonymous with Moore's portrayal of Bond. It's not as smooth a cocktail as it was in the previous movie, and the story seems to get crowded out a bit by all the excess.

While we're on the topic, though, let's see if we can make some sense of the plot…. During the pre-credit sequence, we see a space shuttle get hijacked mid-air whilst being transported from California to Europe. The UK was apparently responsible for the shuttle's safety, so MI6 sends Bond to investigate. He first goes to Los Angeles (via stock footage), where eccentric space ship industrialist Hugo Drax - played by an astonishingly uncharismatic Michael Lonsdale - has built a sprawling estate next to his space ship factory that is supposed to look exactly like an estate in France (because in reality the movie was filmed in France for tax purposes).

Chang, one of Drax's lackees, tries to kill Bond using a g-force simulator for no clear reason, and then after Bond randomly has sex with Drax's personal jet pilot, the billionaire tries to have him assassinated during an impromptu duck hunt on the estate's front lawn. Right away the movie lost me because Drax could have been a little friendlier to the British secret agent up front as opposed to, oh I don't know, trying to kill him multiple times, and then his evil plot might have gone off without as many hiccups.

The various attempts on Bond's life do arouse some mild suspicion, however… so much so that he inexplicably goes to Venice, Italy, where he has several scenes where he just looks like a sad old man wandering around aimlessly, much like John McCain at a Presidential debate.

Fortunately, after a while Bond randomly stumbles upon a secret chemical lab that happens to be producing some highly deadly nerve gas. Why are they doing that? And what does it have to do with the missing space shuttle? Well, the movie waits another goddamn hour to tell us, and meanwhile, Bond decides to go to Rio for no clear fucking reason that I was able to piece together based on anything that was said or demonstrated elsewhere in the movie. Once there, he has sex with another stunningly attractive woman who is probably 30 years younger than he is, and then goes to a street festival.

Meanwhile, Jaws is relentlessly in pursuit and continues to easily survive situations like falling 20,000 feet from the sky into the hard ground, and sliding down a lift cable and smashing into a brick building. He then meets a short blond girl with enormous breasts whom we instantly know he is in love with because Tchaikovsky's "Romeo And Juliet Overture" plays when we first see her. Their blossoming romance mercifully happens entirely off-screen, but then later they both show up on Drax's space station in the third act. Once Jaws realizes that Drax's plan for using the nerve gas to kill everyone on Earth and then having all the preppy models he's brought into space create a new "master race" to repopulate the planet miiiiiiiiiiight not include a gigantic steel-toothed freak and his 4 foot tall, triple-D cup girlfriend, he suddenly switches sides, and helps Bond save the planet. Urgh.

Drax's plot is very unclear until the last half hour of the picture. I've been thinking a lot about that and whether or not it contributed to the film's crippling lack of momentum for me. When I think of it, many of the other Bond pictures have done this too, starting at the beginning of the franchise with Dr. No, to varying degrees of success. Maybe Moonraker's problem isn't that there are too few breadcrumbs being thrown down as much as the fact that how it gets you from one to the next just isn't all that interesting.

But of course, Hugo Drax bears a lot of the blame too. Roger Ebert sometimes quotes Gene Siskel's observation that "a Bond picture is only as good as its villain." So far, I've really found that to be true… the two Bond pictures I've liked the least thus far - 1965's Thunderball and now this one - have the misfortune of following the intimidating Auric Goldfinger with the dull mumbling Largo, and the steely aquatic-obsessed Stromberg with Hugo Drax, who looks like he came to set immediately after appearing at a Renaissance Fair. He's given so little screen time that it's hard to even really feel all that intrigued or intimidated by him. In fact, Drax basically sub-contracts out the disposal of Bond to Jaws early in the movie, and then disappears for a good hour or so. How are you supposed to root against a villian when you don't know anything about him or what he's doing?

Now in Drax's defense, it's truly a scary scene 90 minutes in when he launches all of his shuttles into space, and we still don't have much of a clue about what he's up to, but I stand by my overall comment that he's one of Bond's less interesting baddies. You can be good, and you can be bad… but the biggest sin is being "boring." Drax is just plain boring.

Oh, and after a parade of bubbly bimbo Bond girls like "Plenty O'Toole" and "Mary Goodnight" throughout the 70s Bond pictures, the series continues the radical concept from the last movie of having Bond's primary love interest be a little more intelligent and respectable. Still unable to resist Bond's penis, mind you, but at the very least, she's less ditzy and outright stupid. This time, it's an American CIA agent who is posing as a rocket scientist in Drax's organization. She has the dignified name "Dr. Holly Goodhead" and is played by Lois Chiles, who makes for a surprisingly bland and uninspiring foil to Bond, certainly so relative to Barbara Bach in the previous movie. But hey, that kind of nondescript dullness seems to be par for the course with this movie.

Several key creative personnel were carried over from 77's The Spy Who Loved Me… most notably director Lewis Gilbert and screenwriter Christopher Wood. This was the last time either would work on the franchise. It was also the last movie for Bernard Lee as "M." Lee would pass away early in the production of next movie, 1981's For Your Eyes Only, before any of his scenes were shot.

I could be wrong, but Moonraker - the 11th "official" James Bond movie - really feels a bit like the end of an era for the franchise. I liked the earlier Moore pictures, but it seems that this is the point where the movies got a little less inventive and Moore's camp and schtick went a little over the top in terms of corniness.

The previous movie, 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, was probably a bit of a sea change too.... It was the first outing where long time Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli handled one of the movies solo, after his partner Harry Saltzman had to sell his stake in the franchise. With Spy, it's like Broccoli knew that he was under a lot of pressure and the movie had to be good. It was. But Moonraker feels more like "product"... a mismatched collection of established Bond traditions and clichés rather than a movie that feels like a unique entity which moves the series forward.

Longtime Bond editor and 2nd unit director John Glen would direct the next five pictures, all of them made throughout the 80s (three more starring Moore and two with Timothy Dalton). My vague memories of the Bonds of this era are not terribly positive, but I will go in with an open mind and I guess I'll have to see how I feel when I watch 'em.

I wonder, though, that if I had been old enough to see the movies in theaters as they were released, if I wouldn't distinguish the Bond pictures between those that came out before Moonraker - the "good ones" - and the ones that came out after.

Miscellaneous observations:

•Look, I'm as big a fan of the original 1977 Star Wars as anyone, but 1979 must have been a tough time to go to the movies, what with all the Star Wars knock-offs and other assorted space-based adventures that were in theaters. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, The Black Hole, plus the original Battlestar Galactica on TV. I think I would have been so sick of seeing glacially paced starship movies that I would have staged some kind of a boycott.

•Another Star Wars influence... Bond seems to use The Force during the movie's climax in order to shoot down one of Drax's satellites that is set to release nerve gas into the earth's atmosphere. Uh-huh...

•Just before Bond discovers the nerve gas factory in Venice, someone punches an access code into a keypad. The tones match the famous five notes from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind two years earlier. A sign of the bald-faced sci-fi pandering to come later in the film.

•The martini returns again for only the 2nd time in the Moore series thus far. The sexy 20 year old agent that Bond teams up with in Rio makes it for him.

•The product placement is out of control after the scene on the cable car in Rio. There are 7UP billboards all over the place, and shortly after that, ones for Seiko, Marloborogh and British Airways. It still doesn't beat all the Kentucky Fried Chicken product placement in Supermans II and III for me, but it's still worth mentioning.

•The picture returns to Venice for the first time since From Russia With Love. During The Spy Who Loved Me I was starting to feel that the movies were flirting with repeating action scenes… the opening ski chase is Spy is like a faster version of the many ski chases from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Also in Spy there's the fight with Jaws on the train that brought From Russia to mind as well. I wonder if these are all intentional homage or if the movies just ran out of locations and concepts?

•Again, Moonraker follows the roadmap of the previous movie a little closely, but without the same sense of fun. Drax's plot is ultimately the same as Stromberg's in the last movie, but set in space instead of under the sea. The car chase in Italy during The Spy Who Loved Me was very exciting and badass… Moonraker attempts two similar sequences where Bond suddenly gets into trouble and escapes using a tricked out vehicle that Q has supplied him with. The much more stupid one happens first: That's when Bond is minding his business on the canals of Venice when bad guys start shooting at him. Luckily, Q foresaw this and happened to design an MI6 gondola loaded with rocket launchers, and which can turn into a hovercraft. The other scene is an exhausting speedboat chase before the film's third act, which is mainly notable because whenever Bond blows up a rival ship, there's a ridiculous shot of a bunch of dummies being propelled through the air by the explosion.

•Another repeated pattern from the last movie: Bond is getting busy with the chick-of-the-flick when he's suddenly caught by M, MI6, and some rival government. It's moderately disturbing to me that he doesn't seem to mind his superiors catching him in the act. In both cases, the women don't seem have a problem with having been caught either.

•For some reason, the title song performed by Shirley Bassey (her third for the series) really irked me in this movie. Some of the Bond songs are about the movie's bad guy (Goldfinger, Thunderball, The Man With The Golden Gun, etc) while others seem at least tangentially related to something in the movie (Diamonds Are Forever, et al). This one is another love song - presumably because the song from The Spy Who Loved Me was so successful - but a love song for who? There's no real love story in the movie. Check out these lyrics:

Where are you? Why do you hide?
Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?
Just like the moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold,
I search for love, for someone to have and hold,
I've seen your smile in a thousand dreams,
Felt your touch and it always seems,
You love me,
You love me.

Well, the 'Moonraker" is one of six spaceships that's going to enable some asshole to kill everyone from space. Did lyricist Hal David even watch the movie? I guess you could argue that the song is about Jaws and his desire to find a lifemate... it's way funnier that way, to be sure, but I'm not sure I entirely buy it.

•I don't have much of an impression of John Barry's score for this one, overall, but I thought that the cue he wrote for when you first see Drax's private space station was really chilling.

•Speaking of 2nd tier baddies usually not returning for subsequent movies because they're dead… I'd like to point out that Nick-Nack did survive the end of The Man With The Golden Gun. I have high hopes that he'll return in the next Daniel Craig picture, maybe played by Peter Dinklage or Tony Cox now… we'll have to see how that shakes out.

March 19, 2013

The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond #10) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

Although I had seen 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me before, it had been a while.

For whatever reason, I was expecting that the movie - the 10th "official" Bond - would be a little cheesy and campy ala the less dignified moments of the previous one, 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun. I was really surprised, however, that while this movie does have a few silly moments, much of it is actually pretty exciting, and at times quite intense and scary… all making for one of the best Bond movies of this era and many another.

A key difference between this picture and Golden Gun is that the threat level is set pretty high in the very first sequence: Atomic submarines from both Britain and Russia mysteriously disappear, and so naturally MI6 and the KGB send their best agents into action to find out what happened. The best British spy is, of course, James Bond, played by Moore for the third time. The best the KGB has to offer is Major Anya Amasova (aka Agent XXX) played by the stunning American-born actress Barbara Bach. Just a few years later, Bach would marry Ringo Starr, meaning that she must have really really really wanted to be married to a Beatle, no matter what.

Anyway, the two independently track some stolen microfilm (Yay! Microfilm!) to Egypt where they compete with each other to get it first. Upon completing that phase of the mission, their two agencies decide that they should work together for, oh, say the rest of the movie in the name of ushering in a new era of Anglo / Soviet cooperation.

After nine movies full of hot women who basically just hang around until Bond decides to sleep with them, it's a relief and a pleasure to finally have a strong female character who can stand up to Bond and at least be his foil, if not his equal. Anya does have her "damsel in distress" moments in the picture, particularly in the last part of the film, but she never devolves into quivering jelly the way TIffany Case did in Diamonds Are Forever nor is she just there to stand around in a bikini like Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun.

The other surprising thing to me that Moore's Bond has continued to have some really cold, steely moments in his three movies that always shatter my previously-held impression that his version of Bond was primarily silly. A neat moment is the scene where Bond and Anya first meet at a bar in Cairo… each rattles off vital statistics about the other to show how well-versed in the opposition they are. When Anya mentions that Bond had been married, but his wife was killed (at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Bond gets testy and cuts her off. It's a really interesting character moment for him the likes of which make his portrayal 1000 times more interesting to me.

Another striking moment is when Bond mentions he was in Switzerland a few weeks back on a mission (as seen in the pre-credit ski chase). Anya was in love with another KGB agent who was killed there around that same time. "Did you kill him?," she asks. Moore takes this revelation in, and then his face becomes cold and emotionless: "When someone's behind you on skis at 40 miles per hour trying to put a bullet in your back, you don't always have time to remember a face. In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. It was either him or me." And then the finisher: "The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him."

It's a much darker sub-layer to the film than I remembered or expected... and I really loved it.

I also didn't expect to really dig the film's heavy: The ocean-obsessed Karl Stromberg, excellently played by Bavarian actor Curd Jürgens. Stromberg believes mankind is corrupt and in decay, and he means to trigger atomic armageddon by nuking both New York City and Moscow with his stolen subs. Humanity will then rebuild itself in Stromberg's proposed cities on the ocean floor. Jürgens is so chilling in the part that it somewhat transcends the usual Bond villain malaise, although I'm hard pressed to describe what about him exactly is making me feel that way. I think part of it is that he's not after some kind of ransom, as many of the other Bond baddies have been: He's destroying the world for ideology, which is far more unsettling.

The show-stealer, however, is Richard Kiel making his first appearance as the steel-toothed henchman Jaws. Moore is a pretty big guy, but the 7'2" Kiel easily dwarfs him. He positively looks like a giant during a train fight with Anya mid-way through the movie (that seems to pay homage to a similar train fight way back in 1963's From Russia With Love, I think).

Anyway, Jaws is one of the aspects of the movie is that truly scary, and I again I was surprised by how effective a baddie he was in this flick: When he popped out of nowhere to ambush a character, I jumped… when he does that slow, malevolent lean-in to kill someone with his teeth, I squirmed. A certain aspect of Jaws is played for laughs too, of course (such as the scene where he rips a service van to pieces with his bare hands while Anya and Bond attempt to drive away), but somehow the semi-comic aspects of him never diminish the fact that he's huge and terrifying.

The action sequences are quite excellent and varied in this picture: The pre-credit ski chase (an homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service?) complete with the brilliant finisher of Bond skiing off the side of a mountain, falling through the air for what feels like an eternity, then releasing a parachute that has the Union Jack on it…. The eerie sequence at the pyramids where Jaws chases and kills a key informant… The thrilling high-speed helicopter chase in Italy that ends with Bond driving his car into the water and turning it into a submarine…. Even the sequence in the last part of the film where Bond is desperate to get into the control room of the supertanker so he can stop the stolen submarines from firing their missiles. Bond is forced to use his head and take the warhead out of a nuclear missile to blow through the security door… a fantastically tense sequence that is all the more urgent in the film because it is only small component of the much bigger problem that Bond has to solve.

It's worth mentioning that the director is Lewis Gilbert who had also directed You Only Live Twice 10 years earlier. The two films oddly share a number of similarities… In Twice, Blofeld steals American and Russian spaceships to try to get the two countries to go to war with each other… in Spy, Stromberg has a supertanker that swallows atomic submarines for very much the same purpose. The interior of the volcano in Twice is cavernous and contains a monorail system… so does the interior of the supertanker in Spy, and so on…

Other thoughts….

-Unlike the previous movie, the plot actually feels big and consequential right away. It's amazing what a difference that makes.

-The martini returns! Anya orders one for Bond at the bar when they first meet to demonstrate how much she knows about him. Bond's shaken (not stirred) signature drink had been absent from the previous Moore movies.

-They really ramp up the double entendre in this picture. In the opening, after M has been informed of the missing atomic submarines, he asks Moneypenny where Commander Bond is. "He's on a mission sir. In Austria," she replies. M says, "Well, tell him to pull out! Immediately!" and then we cut to Bond making love to a woman. In another scene, an MI6 agent stationed in Egypt persuades Bond to stay the night in his camp by introducing him to a particularly gorgeous local there. A cheeky look crosses Bond's face, who wryly reasons, "Well, when one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures!" Classy.

-"Nobody Does It Better," performed by Carly Simon might be my favorite Bond song. It's in my top two or three, at least.

-2 of the 3 Roger Moore Bond movies have NOT been scored by the series' regular composer, John Barry, thus far. I actually kind of prefer what George Martin did on Live And Let Die and what the late Marvin Hamlisch did on this picture to what Barry did on Golden Gun and what he would do on Moonraker. I wasn't expecting to feel that way.

-Director Lewis Gilbert started to have fun with some of the Bond conventions. The one I thought was really clever was when Q introduces Bond to this amazing new car in Italy (before the helicopter chase). It's done from Anya's point of view… she sees Q pointing to parts of the car and explaining things, but she's too far away to hear any of the words. Later, when the car can fire missiles and go underwater, it's as much a surprise to us as it is to her.

-Again, not sure why I found Stromberg to be such a refreshing bad guy… Blofeld dominated three movies in a row: You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever. Then it was Dr. Kanaga in the next movie, and then the ridiculously three-nippled Scaramanga in the one prior to this... both had more modest goals. I guess it's just fun to have an evil heavy around hell-bent on world destruction again who gets you to believe that he really means it. It's not even that clear what exactly Stomberg's plot is until 90 minutes into the movie, which was kind of cool as well.

In conclusion, I was expecting a campier movie, and was surprised and delighted to find that that's not really what this picture is. Certain camp elements do start to work their way in during the 2nd half, however. This movie feels just about pitch perfect, though, with very few missteps, if any.

I'm told that the next movie, 1979's Moonraker, doesn't stir all the elements together into quite as pleasant a cocktail. I guess there's only one way to find out if I agree with that...