Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - **1/2

Just when I thought I was out, done with dull superhero movies, they pull me back in, with Thor: The Dark World. This recent brood of superhero films have tread the line between dismal and mediocre, but I actually really enjoyed Kenneth Branaugh's almost quaint depiction of the Norse god, and the choice to set that film in small-town New Mexico rather than a metropolis like, well, Metropolis. Unfortunately, Alan Taylor's sequel, either through Marvel Studios' preference to use all of its properties as cross-promotion for the rest of them, focusing on the universe as a whole, rather than the individual titular characters, or through Disney's recent acquisition of said properties, forcing more hands in to stir the pot, or perhaps simply through Taylor's lack of gusto, Thor: The Dark World lands somewhere in the realm of... Adequate.

A prologue opens the film, introducing Malekith, the leader of the Dark Elves, an ancient race that went into some kind of disappointment-hibernation after failing to capture "The Ether," a mystical evil energy force as old as time itself, or something like that. This sequence elicits the first in a series of groans that last through to each of the films three endings (depending on how soon after the credits one chooses to saunter out of the theater) as we're subjected to a heap of lofty exposition like this, all so that we can understand a very simple premise. The plot turns, and turns again, and an anti-gravity warp zone opens up because every x-amount of time the Nine Realms line up, and something and something, and so love interest Jane Foster ends up with the magic Ether inside of her blood-stream, a sad turn which relegates her character simply to Vessel for Plot Progression as she becomes the target of Malekith, somehow awakened by Ether activity.

Fortunately Taylor inherits the well-drawn characters for Branaugh's film, whose likability acts as The Dark World's saving grace, filtering all of this nonsense through the levity-inducing sensibility of its ragtag group of Earth scientists and their side-kicks... And their sidekicks' side-kicks. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as Thor, again providing the right balance of snarky arrogance and endearing tenderness. Tom Hiddleston's back as Loki, too, and thank Odin for that, because without him there would be no edge to the film, very troubling considering there's barely any with him.

Where a great sequel builds on the world introduced in prior films, further developing its characters and ideas, Thor: The Dark World simply gives us bigger, and more. We see more of Asgard, but still don't really get a sense of what it's actually like there, beyond home of Odin's palace, where most of Asgardian screen-time is concentrated. It seems as though great opportunities are squandered at every plot turn, with Taylor often holding back from the audience vital information that all of the characters know, in order to manufacture cheap suspense which will never hold up on a second viewing. One such episode involves Loki, finally free of the shackles he's been under for most of the film, immediately betraying Thor when we've all (thought we've) been fooled into trusting him, but it turns out that it was just part of a plan they hatched up off-screen to fool the Dark Elves.

And that's pretty much how the film goes: just when something might happen that will set the film apart from others and make it at all unique, it turns out it's just part of a bland plot twists that negates whatever was interesting. What's left is still a serviceable piece of ephemeral popcorn entertainment, which hits all of the expected beats, but what's most memorable about it is how much potential it leaves unrealized. Rather than taking the opportunity to further develop Thor and co., Marvel uses it to boost their brand, and The Dark World is instead yet another largely generic feature-length trailer for whatever comes next with the Avengers.

Quick Thoughts - The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005)

11/23/13: Judd Apatow has never been one for brevity, and I stand by Shakespeare's adage that brevity is the soul of wit. Nobody ever asked for a longer comedy, or to expand on a punchline, but unfortunately that's exactly what Apatow loves to do. However, the premise of The 40 Year-Old Virgin is sound, and Apatow also excels at deeply character-based comedy, so even when he hammers the nail a little too hard, it's always in service of building something bigger than the obvious, gimme jokes that the concept would be chock-full of had somebody else been in charge. It's not perfect, and its long run-time invites Apatow's signature get-on-with-it-already third-act issues, but its plenty funny on the way there, and surprisingly original, too. ***

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - **

Looking back on the story arc of Catching Fire leaves one wondering where the hell the rest of the film is. For all its flash and grandiosity, not much really happens, and it leaves very little to ponder beyond how we got suckered into making this series the phenomenon that it now is. Maybe that's because, like the first Hunger Games, about halfway through, the characters are again thrust into an unsatisfying fight-to-the-death which contributes relatively nothing to the film's already convoluted narrative, and manages to be about as thrilling as a group of toddlers playing hide-and-seek in the backyard.

Director Francis Lawrence takes over directing duties, surpassing the lackluster Gary Ross, and he provides more edge to the action, while handling the drama with a subtler touch, focusing on some interesting details the first film glazed over in its broad-strokes approach, and yet he still turns out a film that couldn't accurately be described as better than average. If Lawrence, whose films include I Am Legend, and Water For Elephants, has a trademark as a director, it's that he makes a great first half that is negated by the absolute mediocrity of the second, and while Catching Fire's narrative woes can hardly be ascribed to him, it nevertheless falls in line with his seeming lack of follow-through.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Mary and Max (2009)

11/22/13: This quirky piece of claymation could have been a great short film. It tells the true story of an awkward nine-year old Australian girl becoming penpals with an autistic old man in New York City, and the burden and wonder that this relationship holds for these two loners. Told solely through narration, which occupies the stretches not taken up by the characters reading the actual letters that were written, Mary and Max gets a little tiresome and one-note, even before it spirals from silly-sweet comedy into bitter, dark tragedy, which its odd animation style and annoying character design fail to fit. Though buoyed by a lot of interesting detail throughout, it becomes rather grueling to sit through in the end, and falls under its own weight. **

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Quick Thoughts - The Odd Couple (1968)

11/21/13: What could have been a brilliant film turns into a maddeningly irritating bore. The premise of the Neil Simon scripted film, based on his play, is near-perfect in its simplicity: A messy friend shares his apartment with his obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic friend whose wife has just kicked him out. And the casting of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon virtually guarantees a hit. It works for a while, until it gets repetitive, acting out the same argument over and over until Lemmon overdoes it, crossing the line between providing an essential part in the dynamic between these two characters from which the humor is derived, and simply becoming grating on the nerves. **

Quick Thoughts - Cop and 1/2 (1993)

11/21/13: On the surface, Cop and 1/2 is just another formulaic buddy cop movie. It has all of the cliches and routine plot twists that are expected. But when you get into sub-genres, the pleasure is in the variation, and somehow director Henry Winkler is able to make the same old tricks fresh again. Aging, cocky Burt Reynolds gets paired up with Norman D. Golden II, an eight-year old who obsessively watches cop dramas on TV and mimics the tough-guy act. It's unlikely that such a plot could work, but Golden actually has some acting intuition that elevates him from simply being a cute kid, and Reynolds fully commits to the role, playing the part with the right amount of sincerity, so what would have been a silly premise that gets old after the first act is transformed into a genuinely funny family film, and a legitimate entry in the buddy cop canon. ***

Monday, December 9, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Robot & Frank (2012)

11/20/13: As likable light dramas that you happen upon on Netflix go, Robot & Frank is just about perfect. A good concept realized with competent direction; though it could have been a little more ambitious with its broader ideas, its reserve allows for a richer, more intimate look at its central character, and Frank Langella is able to carry it, showing off a gentler side, though not without a little edge when needed. It's a breezy ninety minutes that would be easy to swallow in between naps on a lazy Sunday afternoon. **1/2

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Thoughts - Gigli (2003)

11/18/13: First thing's first... Gigli isn't as bad as you've heard. It's an almost absolute misfire, a fact which was adversely compounded by a heaping load of negative hype. Even a good film didn't stand a chance with the buzz that this bad one received, though wording it like that makes it seem as though the film is completely innocent, when in reality it was very much complicit in its own inevitable demise. It didn't so much receive its negative buzz as it generated it, emanated it, even, with its stupid-ass smug title with the confusing pronunciation that they surely thought was clever and interesting, and the casting of then-it-couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez that was supposed to be so cute. The fact that the promotion of Gigli and its resulting coverage gave rise to the celebrity portmanteau, and potential audiences were subjected to the term "Bennifer" is alone reason to revile the film and revolt against it.

So... How is the actual film, ten years removed from all of the hype? It's still pretty bad, but tolerable most of the time. It's totally understandable that it seemed like a good idea, on paper: written and directed by Martin Brest, it follows in a similar vein as Midnight Run or Scent of a Woman, aiming to be a tale of quirky criminals falling for each other through a series of overly verbose battles of wits. Unfortunately Brest misjudges the likability of his characters, who are as smug as the film's title and, like the film itself, lack a modicum of self-awareness which might have made them, and it, interesting. So their loquacious bouts become exhausting rather than endearing. Oh, and it probably doesn't help that the plot centers around them kidnapping and holding for ransom a retarded kid who thinks they're taking him to the Baywatch set and loves to sing Baby Got Back, something the filmmakers obviously thought was so painfully funny that they couldn't resist throwing the audio of which in over the end credits.

And yet there's still a faint charm to Gigli... It's ill-conceived and poorly executed, but its intentions are so well-meaning; it really does think it's being nice and sweet when Affleck's self-proclaimed "Sultan of Slick... Rule of fuckin' cool... Fuckin' original, straight-first-foremost, pimp-mack, fuckin hustler, original gangster's gangster!"shows Justin Bartha's Sir Mix a Lot-loving retarded kid how to sweet-talk ladies. And when they do happen upon the Baywatch set, and Affleck watches from a distance as Bartha wanders his way into the scene and chats up a model, his smile of approval is so genuine it almost makes you almost want to share in his, and the film's, self-satisfaction. *1/2

Monday, December 2, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Stoker (2013)

11/17/13: Stoker's deliberately enigmatic tone is at once its greatest asset and its most frustrating one. Chan-wook Park's film is like a parlor trick: perplexing and fun... Until it's not. The pace is slow, the visuals are meticulously composed, making the audience puzzle over every line of dialogue and curious facial expression, and it's all good fun until the gradual realization that there's not enough here for a truly compelling film finally lands, and you walk away without much to think over and savor other than how good a director Park really is that he had you going for so long almost entirely on smoke and mirrors. It's a misstep when considering that this man delivered us Oldboy and Thirst, but no less a showcase of his talent. At worst, it's an interesting failure. **1/2

Friday, November 22, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Erik the Viking (1989)

11/17/13: Erik the Viking feels like the Monty Python equivalent of an SNL film, material enough for a great sketch, maybe even a series of sketches, but stretched far too thin at feature length. It's occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, which is more than I can say for most SNL productions. And even in its duller stretches, Python silliness seeps its way in for some ephemeral chuckles, and any Terry Jones film is good for some great homemade effects to liven things up. **1/2

Quick Thoughts - The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

11/16/13: I'm not sure how much of this film I actually understood, or how much I was even supposed to understand. Buckaroo Bonzai is a famous surgeon who is also a stunt man, who also headlines a rock band, who finds himself busting out his dead wife's doppelganger from prison after she tries to kill him. From there he gets tangled in an interplanetary conflict with aliens from another dimension, which the film somehow ties to Orson Welles' presentation of War of the Worlds. The manic absurdity is nearly kept in check by absolute committal by its oddly respectable cast and sincere filmmaking form director W.D. Richter. It's leagues beyond convoluted, and would be total garbage if it weren't so beautifully trashy... In other words, it's Grade A cult material. **1/2

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Superman Returns (2006)

11/16/13: Bryan Singer's take on Superman should be held up as a model for how to put superheroes on the screen. It hits every note with equal measures of humor and grace, even in its action-filled third act. Singer develops both sides of his quote/unquote tortured hero beautifully, making us care about not only what happens to him, but also how he reacts, and does so without subjecting us to two hours of lumbering scenes of Superman brooding. Returns picks up where Superman 2 left off, refusing to acknowledge the hokum that took place in the third and fourth films, and Singer takes great pains to modernize the character while maintaining the feel of the original films, along with an almost nostalgic tribute to the original comics from the forties, yielding a fun, flashy film that is romantically shot with warm colors and soft edges. And the underrated John Ottman score is pure beauty. ***1/2

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Dumbo (1941)

11/15/13: Like Snow White and a handful of other early Disney films, Dumbo is a beautifully animated, though incomplete film. Despite some heart-filled character development and a handful of funny cartoon gags in the early going, the second half plays much more sporadically, like a series of barely-related episodes that coalesce into something much less satisfying than the idea of a movie about a flying elephant promises, and leaves its themes of individuality and acceptance only half-realized. The penultimate sequence features Dumbo getting accidentally drunk with a mouse and going on a ten minute acid trip. It's gorgeous, but makes no sense and has no place in the film. Dumbo is interesting as a piece of film history, but by no means great. **

Quick Thoughts - Trouble with the Curve (2012)

11/14/13: Trouble with the Curve is a bad movie made by talented people. The drama is less predictable than it is routine, though both adjectives will suffice; its characters aren't exactly one-dimensional, but they certainly lack the necessary depth to make them, or the story around them, truly interesting; and far too many scenes feel as though they were crafted to put the characters in situations that set up a transparent metaphor which accentuates their emotional states, which would be fine if the characters didn't then vocalize the metaphor itself:

-"Come closer."
-"I'm keeping my distance."
-"You do that a lot."

Get it? Interactions like this permeate the film, over-clarifying what little complexity or cleverness there might have been. And still its cast is able to pull off much of this with enough conviction to make it watchable, even when the script has them using baseball terminology in dramatic context. So how did such a lousy script attract such a good group of actors? Clint Eastwood did it as a favor to director Robert Lorenz, his former assistant director, and then... Well, would you pass up a chance to act alongside Clint Eastwood? Yeah, me either. **

Monday, November 18, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Pacific Rim (2013)

11/13/13: Guillermo Del Toro's latest is essentially Independence Day with robots and sea monsters... And I mean that in a good way. Just about all large-scale effects showcases share a certain set of stock elements already, so should we really care if one shares a number of exact plot points with another? Perhaps it would be a negative if Pacific Rim didn't do so well what most of these films do so poorly, which is to create a universe in which these incredibly ridiculous events seem somewhat plausible; the most amazing thing about it is that the world of the film was as entertaining as the set-pieces themselves... The more I learned about this strange future, the more I wanted spin-off films dealing with various aspects of it. Generally, giant CGI blank versus giant CGI blank scenes are vapid and devoid of any real humanity, not to mention an entire film based on such a dynamic; after the prologue explaining that after alien monsters started destroying cities, man built huge robots to fight them, I thought I was in for a Power Rangers film and got nervous. But Del Toro's robots, manned by two pilots who must synchronize brains, lend an almost spiritual component that steers the film in interesting directions, focusing less on the CGI itself, which is crisp and beautiful, but more on the characters within it. ***1/2

Friday, November 15, 2013

Quick Thoughts - Wrong (2012)

11/13/13: It took me two sittings and a whole lot of will-power to make it through Wrong, Quentin Depieux's latest experimental offering. I was intrigued by his first film, Rubber, a send-up of the horror genre about a homicidal tire, but didn't have the heart to seek it out after hearing that it was unbearably pretentious. While I can't speak to that claim directly, I can say for sure that Wrong fits that description precisely. I have no doubt that Depieux could expound on what the film really means, or that some viewers, desperate to validate their experience spending ninety minutes watching it, could formulate some bullshit about how deep it is, but Wrong is about as shallow as it gets. Its absurdity comes off as jokes in search of a punch-line and its surrealism passes as nothing more than an attempt to cover up Depieux's lack of true imagination. I'm sure he'd argue that I just didn't get it, and to tell you the truth... I'm fine with that; given what's on the surface, I really don't care what's underneath. *

Quick Thoughts - Another Year (2010)

11/12/13: Mike Leigh is a master of writing brilliantly nuanced characters and pulling out truly raw performances from his actors. In this sense, Another Year is another notch in is belt, and Lesley Manville's broken, needy, alcoholic narcissist might be Leigh's greatest triumph as a writer/director. However, it's just about all the film has going for it as Leigh chronicles four dinners, separated by changing seasons, which Manville's character attends, invited or not. Seeing her through the eyes of her more mentally stable friends, a likable Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, is interesting, and perhaps vital to her presentation, but the pair provide no real drama in the moments Manville is not around to stir things up and make the audience cringe, a chunk of time which is unfortunately too much to sit through waiting for something to happen. But still, a film by the great Mike Leigh, even half-cocked, is better than most. ***

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Monsters University - **1/2

Outside of making gobs of money for Disney, selling Mike and Sully dolls to a new generation, Monsters University has no reason for existing. We didn't need to revisit these characters any more than we needed an update on the adventures of Lightning McQueen and his buck-toothed car buddy in Disney's Cars 2.

A few years ago Disney acquired Pixar and they have not wasted any time in taming and sanitizing the once-invincible animation house, stripping it of everything that made it great: innovation, creativity, and a boundless sense of wonder, leaving them to languish in the doldrums of generic storytelling and cash-grab sequels. With Monsters University, it seems that Pixar has surrendered whatever control they were still grasping onto. If not for the brilliantly inspired short that plays before MU, I'd say Pixar's creative muscle has atrophied; Pixar almost seems to be making a deliberate effort not to create a unique or even memorable film, making MU feel more like a naive act of defiance at having to spend three years producing it than the joyous splendor that its far superior predecessor, Monsters Inc., was.

That said, MU isn't the worst film out there, nor is it an ugly piece of animation; even in his sleep, Bobby Fischer is still going to beat you and nine other people simultaneously in a game of Chess. It's bright, crisp, and pleasantly entertaining... Everything you'd expect out of a direct-to-video sequel (okay, prequel), only they released it in theaters and had the audacity to put it in 3D and charge a few more dollars for a useless extra dimension. But even as cynical as I was about the whole thing I found myself giggling throughout the entire film; most of the jokes land, even if it is because Pixar wasn't aiming very high in the first place, opting to play it very, very safe rather than reaching for the stars, as they so boldly used to do. It may sound hypocritical and contradictory to follow such a take down with the confession that I enjoyed MU, but the fact is that I really do love these characters; not wanting another adventure with them is just a reflection of my desire for new characters to love, characters I know Pixar is more than capable of producing.

The success of the Toy Story sequels seems to have cursed Pixar into revisiting the rest of their catalogue. But where they were able to translate our natural connection to toys and our ever-changing relationship to them as we grow older into a meaningful and beautiful piece of entertainment that wasn't afraid to explore deeper issues, MU fails exponentially to come anywhere near that, with its monster-tailored college cliches and don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover theme. Mike and Sully join fraternity Oozma Kappa (abbreviated "OK" for a solid (perhaps meta?) pun on mediocrity), but what does Greek life actually mean to monsters who don't know who the Greeks are, anyway? Roughly the same as what Monsters University actually means to me... Ultimately nothing.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pain & Gain - Zero Stars

Director Michael Bay stated that Pain & Gain was a kind of synthesis of Fargo and Pulp Fiction. But where Fargo has rich atmosphere and subtlety, and where Pulp Fiction has style and wit, Pain & Gain has Michael Bay, who possesses all of the subtlety and wit of a lunkhead bodybuilder... or three lunkhead bodybuilders, to be more accurate. Michael Bay, for whom $20 million is a micro-budget, and for whom dick jokes and gay-bashing are still bottomless sources of gut-busting hilarity. Unfortunately for us, all Michael Bay took away from those films is shocking violence and endless vulgarity, leaving behind the grace and finesse that made those attributes palatable. To say that Pain & Gain scrapes the bottom of the barrel would be a generous understatement; Bay bores right straight through the barrel to mine every last nugget of tastelessness, stupidity, homophobia, and his now-trademark misogyny.

Pain & Gain has Mark Wahlberg playing personal trainer Daniel Lugo, who hatches a plan to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) a rich client who shows disdain for just about anyone he meets... And despite occupying the villain role, he's not even the most unlikable character! Lugo enlists the help of his trainer buddies, limp-dicked (literally and figuratively) Adrain Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and pseudo-Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) as they steal his money, spend it, and need more, and unravel in a frenzy of drugs, greed, stupidity, and some misfired statement about American values, or the American Dream, or the American legal system... Or some reason that calls for having the American flag waving prominently in a way I'm pretty sure was supposed to be ironic.

These events are purported to be true, though they are so thoroughly filtered through Bay's teenage sensibility that the result is more cartoon than anything else. Regardless of how unlikable, unrelatable, vicious, dumb, or pathetic the real people may or may not have been, Bay fails immeasurably to give them any dimension, which might make these characteristics entertaining, or even tolerable. Instead he focuses on lending trivial voice-over narration to just about any character with a speaking role, opting for asinine witticisms over any genuine insight into what a Christian might have been thinking when he set a guy on fire and ran over his head with a van, or when he decided to erase a pair of murder victims' fingerprints by chopping off their hands and grilling them on a Weber across the street from a beat cop.

Aside from his narrative sloppiness, and cast of poorly drawn half-wits, it's the glee with which Bay presents scenes like these that make Pain & Gain such an unpleasant experience, stylizing the violence and brutality enough to divorce it from reality for the sake of entertainment while taking pride in the fact that this is a true story: While Dwayne Johnson twirls a pair of tongs in slow-motion like he's trying to sell them on some QVC affiliate geared toward douche-bags, flipping grilled hands, a caption slides across the screen reminding us that this is, indeed, still, a true story. Well, I wish we had gotten that story, because just as it is too bizarre to be true, the unique atrociousness of Bay's film has to be seen to be believed.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Iron Man 3 - *1/2

Iron Man 3 has everything I've come to expect out of a $200 million franchise film, and most of the things I desire out of one: a bold villain, snarky hero, surprisingly sharp wit, and a whole tangled mess of unnecessary explosions. And yet the most amazing thing about Iron Man 3 is how indifferent I felt about it walking out. The whole thing feels empty, routine, with no discernible style or voice. Yes, it dispenses it's action and humor at the necessary intervals, but it feels more like a connect-the-dot exercise with which the writers are hitting a series of obligatory points rather than using these sequences to tell a story. And not that blockbusters like this need to be an intellectual experience, but the only thought Iron Man 3 manages to evoke in its 2+ hour running time is, "So what?"

Taking place on the heels of the events of last year's Marvelous display of hollow fatuity, The Avengers, this new (and hopefully final) Iron Man shows us a Tony Stark addled by panic attacks and sleep deprivation, holing up in his basement, producing an endless series of prototypical variations on his Iron Man suit. Meanwhile, the Mandarin taunts the President, using malfunctioned genetically enhanced amputee war veterans (yes, you read that correctly) as bombs to teach a series of "lessons" to America.

Of course there is more to it, but every bit of summarization exponentially increases the number of plot holes and convolutions which coincide with each detail, and outside of a rather inspired plot twist concerning the Mandarin I don't have the heart to spoil, none of it is really worth the endurance necessary to either write or read such a description. The most irritating of all of Iron Man 3's myriad issues is its needless tie-in to The Avengers, which constantly provokes the question, "Where the hell are the other Avengers during this crisis? Why is this a solo world-saving adventure? Why does Tony enlist the help of a twelve-year-old rather than, say, Thor?

Though the finale does provide some solid spectacle in the form of forty of those insomnia-inspired prototype suits on auto-pilot attacking a bunch of bad guys on an oil rig... Swooping, firing energy rays, and blowing up with no real purpose or effect, Iron Man 3 has already numbed you to anything but the poignant realization that such a sequence is the perfect metaphor for the ephemeral pleasures of the recent rash of superhero films. I wish I could say this signals the downturn of disappointments like Iron Man 3, that the superhero craze has finally run its course and is sputtering out into obscurity, but I'm sure that, like Tony's army of remote-powered suits, there will be plenty more to take its place and do the same goddamned thing.