Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fast Five (2011)

A big, loud, blast of a film, this series-best entry in the Fast and Furious franchise has the ex-cop Brian O'Conner and the street-race guru Dom Toretto seeking safety from the law (and a small fortune) in Rio de Janeiro. The opening is a hilarious, wordless escape scene showing O'Conner and his girl (and Dom's sis) Mia using their small speedsters to topple a prison bus; if this is too ridiculous and/or unsatisfying for you, you know to leave the theater by the time the words FAST FIVE appear on the screen. From there, the film begins on its loose, vaguely cliched narrative drive to get every significant cast member from the franchise down in Rio, including Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious, Matt Schulze from the original, Dom's love interest from Fast and Furious and, most graciously, Sung Kang as Han from Tokyo Drift (in which he freaking dies halfway through, which doesn't keep him from appearing in the two following sequels). This is a huge advantage of this sequel, which both responds to the 4 previous entries that set it up as well as doing something with the series that makes this entry not only stand out, but surpass all its predecessors (I cannot state this enough, for this marks maybe the only franchise where the 5th installment is the best).

Unlike Fast & Furious, which had a good amount of long, torturous drama in between the racing scenes, this one keeps them coming (sigh) fast & The bonkers set pieces in the trailers are only the tip of the iceberg; one of my favorite scenes, an impromptu drag race outside of a police station, is not even hinted at in the promotional materials. While the dialogue scenes are not as flat and turgid as the previous installment, they are still a little bit corny, saved by the adeptness and chemistry of the cast (save for Paul Walker, who has yet to discover how to consistently bring that actor from Running Scared out to play), particularly Vin Diesel. This series became a HUGE moneymaker only after Diesel reentered the franchise, and its obvious why; his gravely voice and his lumbering physique, along with his expressive, emotive eyes make him a perfect protagonist for this manly, steel-and-chrome-fueled series. Thankfully, unlike Fast & Furious, he is not forced to run the show alone here, and has some great supporting faces to keep things interesting. Tyrese and Luda make a great comic duo, Sung Kang is as suave and savvy as ever, and Joaquim de Almeida provides a sleazy, detestable villain.

But let's not kid ourselves; the supporting cast member that really adds the icing on this souped-up, nitrous-powered cake is The Rock a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson a.k.a. the reason this movie just had the best opening day in April of all time. Goateed, tatted up, and even more bulky than he is usually, The Rock's dogged F.B.I. agent pursuing Dom and O'Conner is so tough, so devoted, and so surprisingly funny that not only does he immediately make the film more tense and interesting when he is on screen, but he has singlehandedly bought this franchise another entry or two after this one. Two scenes with him and Diesel, one a hand-to-hand fight scene, the other a rabble-rousing speech, are indicative of everything this old-school action series is capable of, and received raucous applause from the audience I saw it with. His presence in the film makes this not only the best Fast and the Furious film, but also probably the best flick the Rock has been in, period (ok, maybe I still prefer Southland Tales, but don't tell anyone).

Highly Recommended for action junkies and fans of Vin Diesel and The Rock. Wow it feels good to say that about a new movie. This one is truly impressive; from the first trailers, I have been continually wowed by how much higher they've raised the stakes for this franchise, and the film managed to exceed any expectations I had (my girlfriend's as well).

P.S. I may have liked the film even more had they retained Diesel's killer line from the trailer: "Chances are, sooner or later, we're gonna end up behind bars, or buried in a ditch somewhere...but not today."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Blown Away (1994)

Half-Patriot Games, half-Speed, this handsome, but flat thriller involves two Irish ex-pats, one a bomb squad detective, the other a mad bomber, in a battle of wits in Boston. Jeff Bridges is the hotshot cop, the kind who rides a motorcycle and introduces himself to a potential bomb victim as "Dove...Jimmy Dove." He has decided to settle down and retire when a face from his past, Tommy Lee Jones' Ryan Gaerity, begins to blow up his colleagues in meticulously planned, diversionary bomb scares. Once he knows that Gaerity has specifically targeted him, he becomes obsessed with protecting his father, his bomb squad, his new bride, and her precocious little daughter.

You might be thinking this movie is, basically, an extended showdown between the two macho heavyweights, Bridges and Jones; unfortunately it's not. Much of the movie shows Dove defusing various bombs and traps left for him in advance by Gaerity, sometimes with some sort of note or visual accompaniment attached. They seem to have gone the Heat route, and treated each character as if they inhabited their own story, which would be great if the final overlap was appropriately satisfying; unfortunately it's not (unless you like goofy mid-90's man-wrasslin' scenes). But while Jones' story rides, primarily, on Jones eternal watchability (witnessing his ex-convict character discover the joys of hyper-Irish U2 is a true delight), Bridges is supported by a stellar supporting cast, including Forest Whitaker and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, as fellow bomb defusers, and real-life pop Lloyd Bridges in a phenomenal turn as his old man. A huge detriment to the film is the focus on Bridge's attempt at domestication with his new wife, Suzy Amis. The scenario is so contrived and cliched, with terrible, momentum-breaking dialogue ("Thinking about checking out?") that Bridges ends up being left in the cold, without a consistent character to hold on to; is he a tortured, redemptive warrior, or a battle-weary soldier looking to settle down (it is easier to dismiss Amis' bland, nonexistent performance as an indication of a decided lack of talent)? The bomb scare stuff is tense and fun, but the film continually takes time to focus on Bridges and Amis' home life, deflating any chance this film had of achieving a pace like, say, Speed. The dialogue is serviceable, and the Boston setting is used moderately well, but the main draw here are director Stephen Hopkins long, intricate bomb scares that are a joy to watch snowball and develop.

Slightly Recommended for fans of the cast and scenes where someone looks at a big bomb with a lot of wires and is determined to defuse it (i.e. The Hurt Locker, Lethal Weapon 3, etc.). Stephen Hopkins has done some terrific movies (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Judgment Night) and some alright ones (Predator 2, Lost in Space). This is one of the latter.

In The Heat Of The Night (1967)

Involving and still relevant, this Civil Rights-era murder mystery explores the relationship between a brutish, racist Mississippi cop and the stalwart black FBI agent assigned to assist him. The victim was a local industrialist, whose business interests conflicted with several of the town's citizens, both rich and poor, so the unlikely duo has to comb the entire town for clues, suspects, and evidence. The actual murder is almost circumstantial; the movie is mostly an examination of the town's treatment of the intelligent, unwavering, strong, and moral black Fed, Virgil Tibbs. From his first encounter with Rod Steiger's Sheriff Gillespie, it is clear that the townspeople immediately mark him as an other, and do not look at him, nor expect to treat him, as an equal, regardless of his demeanor and good intentions. As the two interview townsfolk and examine the crime scene(s), they encounter a great deal of resistance and animosity solely based on the fact that Tibbs is an authoritative black man. The relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie strengthens based on mutual professional respect, and various townspeople, including the victim's wife, begin to appreciate what Tibbs brings to the table.

As the unflappable Mr. Tibbs (with that great line that you'll find if you google his name), Sidney Poitier narrowly avoids coming off as a squeaky clean, soulless "Uncle Tom" by infusing his character with an almost aggressive disposition, a veiled sense of kindness, and subtle facial gestures that imply that he is, in fact, understanding of the backwards nature of these Mississippi folk, just completely frustrated with it. However, as the country bumpkin sheriff, Steiger was the one to pull down an Academy Award for this film, and the evidence is on full display. He refuses to fall into any cliched notion of what the character should be, and it is an absolute delight to see Gillespie's racist tendencies repeatedly subside and surface to Tibbs' frustration. He never makes the character a monster, yet never falls into the trap of making him some confused, lost puppy of a man, begging for redemption and understanding. Even by the end, his treatment of Mr. Tibbs does not extend beyond a deep respect for his intelligence and tact, but it is clear that his opinion of black people in general has softened. While he is not going to run out and march with MLK, he is not so ignorant that he does not lose his ability to dismiss a whole race of people who can produce people as helpful, to the town and to himself, as Mr. Tibbs. His arc is a very natural, un-preachy way of getting across the nuances of racial tensions and the reasons that mankind should focus on expelling them. Other performers that show up as townsfolk include Warren Oates, Lee Grant, and Scott Wilson, who all turn in terrific, invisible work (save for Grant's overdone "bereaved widow" scene), and the music is a wonderful southern-fried concoction by Quincy Jones.

Highly Recommended for fans of 1960's social dramas, particularly examinations of the civil rights conflict, as well as fans of Poitier or Rod Steiger. Aside from Steiger, this film won oscars for Best Editing (by future master director, Hal Ashby), Best Screenplay, and Best Picture, over The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde; they were all well-deserved.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Enter The Void (2010)

An engrossing, meticulously constructed, yet overlong drug odyssey into the mind of a DMT addict on a fateful night in Tokyo. The joys of this film need to be seen rather than discussed; right when the opening credits begin, you can deduce that the film is an audio/visual extravaganza that is not necessarily going to look or feel "normal" at any point during its 2 1/2 hour running time. It contains realistically drawn characters, scenarios, and dialogue, and feels hyper-immediate, yet never settles into a form of presentation that would streamline the narrative into something tangible. It forces you to absorb the film on its own terms, and for a good part of the running time, it did. However, even as unconventional as the narrative is, there does seem to be a point where things wrap up, and the film goes on for what seems like a complete other act discussing characters, situations, and events that have, at this point, outlasted their welcome. While there is plenty of this section of the film that I admired and, even, enjoyed, it conflicts with the momentum of the footage preceding it, and it deflates the overall poignancy of the piece with pretension and, at its most guilty, cliche and goofy absurdism. With that being said, the film remains an astoundingly evocative piece of work that rivals Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in terms of its presentation of being in the grasp of hallucinatory, mind-bending drugs.

Highly Recommended, despite its third-act troubles. This is a film that contains such powerful moments and imagery that I can recommend it, while acknowledging that it is completely okay to leave the film before it finishes. There is very little worth sticking around for (save for one, um, penetrating shot) that stands up with the best of what came before it. And it is fairly obvious at which point the turn I'm referring to begins, so my devout approval of this film only extends to all that comes before that particular point. Which is all brilliant.

Perfect Blue (1998)

Haunting and surreal, this psychological thriller anime revolves around a pop star as she begins to take on serious film roles in an attempt to subvert her squeaky-clean image, and the resulting uproar that follows. Her manager begins to grow distant and disapproving, her most rabid fans feel betrayed and disillusioned, and the star, Mima, begins to have episodes of confusion where she fails to differentiate the shift in the tone of her performances from the changes in her actual, real-life psyche. More and more, the line between reality and fantasy blurs, and Mima reaches a point where she cannot distinguish real-life threats and her own personal demons.

The line between art and the artist is the focus here, as the main tension in the film comes from Mima's emotional and mental strain while attempting to expand her oeuvre into previously unexplored depths. Like Black Swan, this film shows how her commitment to achieving a perfectly realized, true performance leaves her so emotionally and mentally vulnerable that she seems almost predestined for confusion and hallucinatory nightmares. Her drive is her own worst enemy, and is that which alienates all of the previously stable forces that allowed her to ride her bubble-gum pop star image into stardom, which she now resents to the point of abandonment. As with his other works, Paprika and Millenium Actress, director Satoshi Kon is more concerned with his characters' internal mindsets than any clear, coherent narrative or structure. Unlike Paprika, the central conflict here is so engrossing and, surprisingly, contemporary (this came out more than a decade before Miley Cyrus tweeted her first nudie pic) that it transcends its trappings of reality and allows the dream-like framework to function in tandem with, and not against, the emotional content of the film.

Highly Recommended for fans of surreal, mature animation, or, specifically, Satoshi Kon. While I still prefer Millenium Actress, with its decades-long scope and delightfully twisty narrative, this is a more satisfying and moving piece than Paprika, which remains the better-known film.

Monday, April 18, 2011

CRAPPY POPCORN MOVIE MEGAPOST- Danger: Diabolik (1968), Blast (2005), and Death Race (2008)

First off, I am not exaggerating with my title post; yes, these are all popcorn movies, meaning they are primarily designed to titillate, excite, and stimulate, rather than move you, and yes, they are all relatively crappy. Danger: Diabolik is, seemingly, the exact type of loosely plotted, Styrofoam prop-filled, poorly acted fluff that Roman Coppola went after with his excellent directorial debut (and, to date, sole feature credit) CQ. The plot, or, I should say, the basic framework for the visuals and effects, involves a thief, named Diabolik, and his mistress, Eva, as they steal fortunes away from the Italian government (this being a Dino De Laurentiis production, and all). This is just an excuse to show things like Diabolik and Eva cavorting on a bed, their naughty parts obscured by piles of stolen money, or Diabolik being frozen in irradiated, melted gold. It is a fun movie, but lighter than air, and not the most original thing in the world (Barbarella did many of the same things, thematically and superficially, but much better).
Blast is a P.O.S. Under Siege knockoff (which, in turn, was a Die Hard knockoff, although decidedly not a P.O.S.) where Vinnie Jones and Nadine Velasquez take over an oil rig, and must be stopped by former fireman and current badass Eddie Griffin (yes, Undercover Brother), tech geek Breckin Meyer (before Robot Chicken brought his dignity back), and, playing Sgt. Al Powell, Vivica A. Fox, defending Griffin to the doubting Nick Mancusos of the world as she barks orders at him via conference call. The script, co-written by Die Hard scribe (and Street Fighter director) Steven E. de Souza, is thinly drawn, cliched action flick dreck; even the best of the one liners sound like they were ad-libbed by Griffin ("We just out-Bushed George Bush; we actually found WMDS!"). Anthony Hickox, who made the Waxwork series back in the day and Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, does nothing to mask the, clearly, limited budget, and stages several boring, lifeless, overly-contained action scenes, where stunt doubles are obvious, choreography is flat and doesn't match, and deus ex machinas abound. I recently read an interview with John Landis where he described Eddie Murphy's attitude during Beverly Hills Cop 3, which, partially, imploded their friendship; he said that Murphy was less concerned with being "funny," as he was hired to be, and more concerned with being a tough, take-no-shit, action star, "like Wesley Snipes." I cannot help but think the same thing about Griffin here, who does overtime work posing in his black turtleneck in, what seems like, an attempt to redefine himself as a serious action star (spoiler alert: didn't happen). Everyone else just looks like they're not even trying, except for Vinnie Jones, maybe because he's spent so much time recently REALLY not even trying that even the most menial effort shines through. Really, truly, a crappy, unremarkable flick.
Unlike Death Race! Surprisingly enough, this remake (of a film I LOVE) based around a bunch of convicts half-racing, half-killing each other with cars is a fun, energetic affair which I actually enjoyed. Jason Statham, as the ace driver headlining the Death Race events, is dependably badass and watchable, Joan Allen is a cold-hearted, hissable villain, and Ian Macshane effortlessly charms his way through the Morgan Freeman role, which could have easily been a throwaway. The action is the best I've seen from Paul W.S. Anderson since Mortal Kombat; THIS is the Paul Anderson who, more than any other director in Hollywood, saw the most possibility in replicating video game aesthetics in cinema, in this case, doing a pitch-perfect Twisted Metal-type flick (albeit without Metal's terrific, grotesque backstories). The highest compliment I can pay the film is that it seems less like a Paul Anderson throwaway, and more of a (lesser) Luc Besson European co-production, with enough bizarre touches, character quirks, and cheer-worthy beats to satisfy most vehicular action fans. Check 'er out if she catches your eye.

I only grouped these three in together because they all seem so half-assed that I felt ashamed to give them their own posts. I hate writing at length about crappy movies that no one cared about during production. But Death Race is actually pretty cool.

A Face In The Crowd (1957)

A wonderful, gritty (especially for its time) depiction of a small-town country bumpkin who, despite his surly, alcoholic nature, becomes a national country star and moral compass. The film shows how the opportunistic producer, played by Patricia Neal, who coddles and nurtures the lost, but talented "Lonesome" Rhodes, digs her own grave by giving the volatile, thoroughly undeserving superstar her full idolatry and attention. Despite the urgings of others from inside Rhodes' camp, she refuses to save her public and personal dignity by sticking with Rhodes, and overlooks his monstrous ego, careless nature, and apocryphal hypocrisy for the small, fleeting moments of tenderness and weakness he exhibits towards her. The depiction of this moment in post-WWII Americana, which we tend to look at through Nick-at-Nite goggles, a admiring the sexless, raceless, prosperous suburban bliss, is revealing and merciless in a way that few movies, particularly Hays Code-era films, were able to achieve. These are not characters to idolize, emulate, or identify with; even the most morally upright "good guy" of the piece (played by Walter Matthau, of all people) only emerges unscathed due to his mostly passive, and, one might say, cowardly nature. The "Star is Born" ill-fated celebrity trajectory is painfully rendered, as Rhodes' small-town beginnings lend itself so perfectly to his average American persona that it is easy to see how his more crude, selfish tendencies are swept under the rug for ratings and commercial spokesman gigs. And the key factor in making these sort of grand, ambitious themes work is the central performance by television star, Andy Griffith.

Thankfully, or unfortunately, Griffith's pristine, stalwart figure he cut out during his 8-year run on the Andy Griffith Show (which came 3 years after this film) has defined his public image in the years since, which makes his feral, uncompromising role in this picture all the more shocking. He drinks, spits, and smokes with none of the over-the-top staginess so common in pre-1960 cinema. He barks out the worst bile imaginable at all his loved ones, and then successfully, and convincingly, coddles up to Neal nearly immediately after. And when he sings, we, just like everyone else, are transfixed at his ability to vocalize his rawest emotions through his country twanging. He never sang like this on the show, and it defines his stage persona within the film so well that, once offstage, his character is allowed to be biggest bastard he can, because once he is performing, all is forgiven. Had the singer been a more clean-cut, Ricky Nelson type, the film would have dated horribly, but with Griffith's musical touch, the film never loses its luster, nor is the viewer reminded of the terrible laws that kept American cinema intellectually castrated until the Vietnam era. The other performers, thankfully, are capable enough to keep up with Griffith's bravura turn: Patricia Neal is unrelentingly sympathetic, even at her weakest, Matthau (as a fellow producer) cuts a simultaneously understanding and bluntly realistic figure, and Lee Remick, as Rhodes' underage wife (Rhodes' persona has shades of Jerry Lee Lewis), is appropriately wide-eyed and reverent. The dialogue, the music, and the staging (particularly the open-floor TV studio scenes) are all remarkable, involving, and evocative. Elia Kazan, whose On the Waterfront and The Last Tycoon I really enjoyed, achieves a raw power unseen in much of his other work; there are no odd, forced innuendos or double entendres here.

Highly Recommended. This movie is more relevant in today's gossip-hungry, celeb-worshipping culture than it was in those pre-internet, pre-Us Weekly, and pre-Vietnam days, when successfully feigning innocence and integrity to millions of people was only mildly impossible.

Fade To Black (2006)

Atmospheric and lively, this contemporary noir revolves around Orson Welles as he acts in an Italian production, filming in Rome, while getting involved with a murderous plot. The narration, from Welles' perspective, immediately provides a real-life context for his character; his post-Kane fame (or infamy) has dwindled, and, although he can get jobs in these foreign co-productions, his Hollywood standing has long since been eclipsed by his former wife, Rita Hayworth, whose posters for Gilda are omnipresent even before Welles leaves the Roman airport. However, the Hollywood in-jokes, thankfully, do not permeate the picture, and soon after Welles exhibits some of his trademark magician's panache, bodies begin to pile up and the mystery becomes the focus of the plot; even before he is directly implicated as a possibile victim, Welles, disillusioned with both his career and the film he is making (humorous scenes show him, almost offhandedly, directing the film himself, as the hapless director can only nod in awe), sees it as a neccessity to get involved with the case in a sleuthing capacity. His driver, formerly a local policeman, assists him as they get deeper and deeper into the politics that may, or may not, have instigated these murders.

For a movie that was ignored in the U.S. the way it was, the film has a surprisingly prolific cast, who all turn in strong, invisible work. Diego Luna, of whom I am not a large fan, makes an intelligent and, surprisingly, tough sidekick, whose reserved demeanor provides a pleasant contrast from Welles verbal showmanship. Paz Vega, as the lead actress of Welles' film, makes for a gorgeous, mysterious femme fatale, while Christopher Walken is subdued, yet enigmatic as a CIA agent friend of Welles. But as Welles himself, Danny Huston turns in some of the best work I've seen from him, and carries the film on his shoulders. He is given the remarkable task of not only filling the shoes of one of the most identifiable and public figures of classic Hollywood, but also maintaining his role as an audience surrogate for the mystery plot, and he is more than up to the task. No doubt somewhat due to his father's relationship with Welles, he is thoroughly familiar with his verbal candor, his fierce, tactile intelligence, and, most of all, his undying cheekiness; we do not wonder, for a second, why this huge movie star is so weilling to put everything else aside and let the amateur detective in him take over. We discover the twists and turns of the local political history and intrigue through his eyes, which, like us, are far more concerned with entertainment and American expat bluster than the dismal state of post-WWII Italian infrastructure. His performance makes the character a larger-than-life, pretentious, yet naturally realized and open-minded protagonist that makes investigating the crimes at hand, with him as a surrogate, a delight.

Recommended for fans of the cast, especially Danny Huston, Orson Welles (who is both revered and nudge-nudgingly lampooned in the film), or foreign-set noirs, such as The Third Man, which this film, clearly, homages.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Scream 4 (2011)

A treat for horror fans, this 10-years-later sequel follows up on main characters, Sidney, Dewey, and Claire, who all happen to be in Woodsboro when a copycat Ghostface killer begins capping off local teens. The opening 5 minutes immediately set the tone for the rest of the film, with a plethora of meta cross-referencing, self-consciously false scares, and envelope pushing, genuinely surprising kills. Kevin Williamson, returning to the franchise after letting Wes Craven and Ehren Kruger nearly ruin the franchise with the yuck-yuck ridden Scream 3, brings the self-awareness of the originals full-circle with the entire cast, rather than just Randy, being in on the joke; the film gets a lot of tension out of the potential victims never being quite sure whether they are truly being stalked or being pranked by someone homaging the "Stab" series (the within-the-film adaptations of the "true" events of Woodsboro). The trends in modern horror are acknowledged, with one scene name dropping the majority of recent horror remakes, and the characters constantly debating whether they are in a sequel or a reboot (Williamson gets a great moment out of the line "Number one rule about remakes...don't fuck with the original.") Every time my date (or I) jumped out of her seat, it reminded me just how good Wes Craven's work can be when he's on point; there are many, many genuine surprise moments in the film, and they never feel tacked on, cheap, or desperate.

Like the originals, this one has an all-B+-star cast. Aside from returning leads, Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox (who looks, and acts, terribly), Hayden Panetierre, Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin, Marley Shelton, Alison Brie, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, and Mary MacDonnell all have moderate-to-central roles (Panetierre, Shelton, and, surprisingly, Anderson are the most memorable). However, one of the highest compliments I can pay this entry is that it affirms, finally, that Sidney is ostensibly the heart and soul of this franchise. There is a scene where she tells a bereaved character "You know how people always say they know how you feel when they don't? I know how you feel." It would not work if her performance as Sidney had not been consistently immediate and real since the first film, and because of Campbell's repeated dedication to a role many other actresses would blow off as genre fluff, that moment, and a number of others like it (not to mention the otherwise-contrived scene in Scream 3 where she discovers the movie set version of her childhood home) are touching in a way not seen in many teen-centric horror films. When she used to land a kick or punch into the killer, keeping him off her, we used to laugh at the killer's klutziness; now, we cheer for Sid's undying survival skills. The attention given to her character, along with the relative fun of the aloof local teens (the film geeks, while obvious and overplayed, get their fair share of zingers), raise the film above the level of, not only its direct predecessor, but of a good amount of the original horror films of the past decade.

My qualms with the film are few, and far between, and they are mostly concerned with the treatment of Gale Weathers, the vaguely "reshot" look of the final scenes, and some of the shoehorned in film geek banter (Panetierre's "wannabe" film geek gets more pathos and humor than the "real-deals"). The tone, the scares, the laughs, the acting, the cameos, and the buildup are all top-notch, and make this a genuine rarity: a decade-plus later sequel that manages to not only capture, but expand on, the themes of the original.

Recommended for fans of the Scream franchise, or of more self-aware, "meta" (the word gets thrown around a lot, in jest) horror films. I was worried that, after 14 years, Williamson's self-aware jargon would be tired, pathetic, and out-of-touch. I stand, very gladly, corrected.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Local Hero (1983)

Heartwarming, surprisingly schmaltz-lite comedy about a representative for an American conglomerate who ventures to a small Scottish community in an attempt to buy the oil rights to the region. Peter Riegert plays the titular character, a through-and-through yuppie who flies into the small town fully aware of his fish-out-of-water status; the great joy of the movie is that, rather than realize how different he is from the townsfolk, he almost subconsciously finds comfort in their eccentricities, their amicability, and, in a delightful touch, their fully visible, smog-free sky. Burt Lancaster is on board as the corporate exec who sends Riegert on his quest, but rather than play another variation of his J.J. Hunsecker character from Sweet Sell of Success, he portrays him as a rather daffy, open-minded old codger; one infers that after a life of making harsh deals, compromises, and downsizing, he has just as much of his humanity left to discover as Riegert. The townspeople are neither morally flawless country bumpkins, nor Twin Peaks-esque Log Ladies and Men from Another Place, but rather normal folk whose patient, relaxed lifestyles stem directly from their environment. Another delightful, transcendental quality of the film is the score by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler; defying both cliche and his own signature style, he provides various themes that are both appropriately moody and remarkably un-80's, despite the era.

Highly Recommended for fans of heartwarming, yet unconventional human comedies, such as Withnail & I and the original, 1981 Arthur. I am not easily won over by this type of film, where the character arcs are essentially telegraphed from the first reel, but this one rolled out with such unabashed optimism, human nuance, and defiance of cliche and expectation that I could not help adore the film by the near-brilliant finale.

Death Note II: The Last Note (2006)

The sequel to 2006's live-action manga adaptation, this entry tells the contuining story of Light, who uses the Death Note to kill whomever he wishes by merely writing their name within its pages, and L, the gifted, intuitive cyberdetective obsessed with uncovering his identity. Without ruining the last film, the ending implied that there would be a sort of team-up between the two characters, and this film largely revolves around the implications of that partnership, from both sides. While L is nearly certain that Light is the enigmatic "Kira," as he is known, he is continuously thwarted by Light's ability to use the constituents of the book to his advantage. Meanwhile, the rest of the world reacts, in various ways, to Kira's unrelenting presence in the media, along with the arrival of, what seems like, another Death Note into the hands of another "Kira."

As it is more directly bound by plot and specific characters than the last installment, this follow-up is not quite as thematically ambitious as its predecessor, and does not focus on the societal impact of Kira's actions as much as their effect on the familiar characters from part 1, and two crucial new female characters. Where the last one played with the viewer's emotions in regards to Light, and how he simultaneously expressed empathy and ruthlessness through the Death note, this one paints the characters in broader strokes, and makes less of an effort to keep their motivations behind their actions ambiguous. However, in exchange, there is more an emphasis on immediacy and suspense, and, after a full movie setting up the duel between L and Light, it is a blast to see their rivalry take center stage while the global ramifications of the Death Note pile up around them. The fundamental differences in their characters are more highlighted this time around, and their strained, yet somewhat understanding interplay is the main joy of the film. Also along for the ride, with further extrapolation, are Light's police official father, his apple-eating guardian god-of-death, Ryuk, and L's loyal handler, Watari; one of the advantages of the two films being filmed with such little time-lapsed is that not only is the entire cast present, but everyone looks and acts exactly as they should, considering the plot begins mere moments after the original's ending.

Highly Recommended for fans of the original, or of ambitious, morally ambiguous manga or cinema. I was not as taken off guard with this one as I was with the first one, but that is only due to my lack of awareness of the series prior to that viewing; in terms of sequels, I kept waiting for this one to show the dirt under its fingernails from playing in its own playground for too long, but the film managed to ride the momentum provided by the original until its thoroughly satisfying wallop of an ending.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Apartment (1960)

Teriffic, swingin' 60's office comedy about a beleaguered clerk who gains standing in his company by allowing philandering executives access to apartment for their extra-marital trysts. Jack Lemmon secured his superstar status with his role as C.C. Baxter, the neurotic, high-strung cog in the machine who repeatedly sacrifices his dignity, his integrity, and much of his sanity in the attempt to advance his career; no stranger to spending the night on a park bench due to his "occupied" apartment, the film shows us how far he is willing to go before he decides to risk his job and reclaim his manhood. Just as he tenuously makes progress with his longtime crush, the cute elevator girl, played by Shirley Maclaine, his boss, Fred MacMurray, grants him a promotion with the stipulation that he must have on-demand access to Baxter's apartment to shack up with, you guessed it, the cute elevator girl played by Shirley Maclaine. The love triangle rambles along as MacMurray eventually assigns Lemmon the task of keeping an eye on Maclaine, which, inevitably, leads to lovey dovey scenes of their blossoming romance, with the increasingly stressed Lemmon being forced to definitively choose between the gold or the girl.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this film, which no one had ever seen fit to mention in their appraisals of the film, is its firmly 60's era depiction of the workplace. The women are all secretaries, and, it is revealed, have all had affairs with their married bosses (until they got too old). The men are all joyous, fedora-sporting cads who amicably compete and banter without ever maliciously undermining each other for personal gain. There are plenty of cocktails drunk, floozies picked up, and codependent, selfless women; Maclaine's character is hopelessly in love with MacMurray, and provides a detached running commentary on the futility, and cliched nature, of her position as "the other woman." Fuck Mad Men; this is the real deal, without irony, in all of its politically incorrect, blissfully unaware glory. Lemmon's stalwart, yet career-minded schlub stands out among his peers for his minimal, but still-present respect for the opposite sex. His faded sense of morality makes him constantly edgy and nervous, and makes him both an identifiable, yet thoroughly watchable protagonist. MacMurray is surprisingly sympathetic as the big boss man, Maclaine is adorable and sympathetic as the perpetually dumped elevator girl, and Ray Walston kills it in a fast-talking smaller part as a coworker of Lemmon's. Billy Wilder made some very ambitious thematic choices for this era (including a scene, my favorite, of Lemmon picking up, and discarding of, an aging barfly floozy), and the end result is a film that has dated in all the right ways, and remains both a delightful narrative and a snapshot of a time, era, and mentality that does not exist (aside from bad xerox copies on AMC).

Highly Recommended for fans of Lemmon or Maclaine, or of classic business comedies such as Sweet Smell of Success or The Front Page (also with Lemmon). I have not seen Wilder and Lemmon's previous collaboration (the obscure, largely forgotten comedy Some Like it Hot), so I cannot say how it holds up, but that film would have to be simultaneously funny, involving, and surprisingly touching to land in this one's ballpark.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

Simultaneously over-ambitious and hideously involving, this girl-power flick tells, in metaphor, the story of a group of female mental patients and their attempts to escape, both spiritually and physically. After we are given the opening titles on a stage, as if setting up a musical, the ace opening tells us, without words, how the protagonist, "Baby-Doll," got herself incarcerated by assaulting her scheming, money-hungry caretaker. Once arrived at the mental hospital, she almost immediately reverts into a sort of trauma-induced hypnosis, where in her perception, the hospital is a brothel, her fellow patients are beleaguered prozzies, and the teeth-gnashing caretaker is a reptilian, pencil-moustached pimp. Revealing much else would betray the wild, intercontextual nature of the script, and the various, dare-I-say-it, sucker punches the film provides throughout. What I can say is that there is yet another level of reality the film sinks into, and, without a set of false, loosely followed rules (*ahem*, Inception), the visuals of these fantasies are allowed to be, well, just as crazy as what you've seen in the films' promotional materials. While much of the more lavish and mind-blowing visuals are contained solely in the characters' minds, they manage to incorporate enough of the main plotline to be more than mere distractions in what is, otherwise, an intimate, introspective tale. The performances of the main girls are hit-and-miss, with Jena Malone's Rockit faring the best (her energy is infectious, whether dispensing dialogue, or dispensing asskicking) and Vanessa Hudgens, surprisingly enough (heh, heh), embarrassing herself, and looking like she'd much rather be on the set of Beastly. Carla Gugino, with her comic-book lips and physique, is perfectly cast as the resident "Madam," Oscar Isaac is a thoroughly hissable villain, and, best of all, Scott Glenn reminds everyone how truly awesome Scott Glenn can be with his pseudo-Jiminy Cricket musings ("And one more thing…").
As grateful as I was for all of director and co-writer Zack Snyder's risk taking, as well as the unabashedly FLAWLESS integration of special effects and live-action, the film did not end up coming together into perfection the way that I had hoped for. I have done a great job of keeping spoilers off of Righteous Film, and I refuse to end that for the sake of attacking the decisions made in the film's third-act, but I must call to attention the striking similarities between the ending of this film and that of a certain futuristic spoof of bureaucracy (saying which would kinda ruin it). That crib, along with several other decisions make the ending feel like a sort of acknowledgement of the films stylized, inorganic nature, which would be fine, had that been the film's only goal. However, there are lengthy scenes, with substance, that serve only to invest the viewer's emotion in the plotline, the circumstances, and the characters, and the style-over-substance ending seems to undermine these more powerful, merciless moments. Had the ending lived up to the promise of those earlier SUCKER PUNCHES (the title, if you haven't guessed, is quite apt), the film would probably be the best film of Snyder's career, and the template for a new era in action-oriented fantasy. But alas, as is, the whole thing suffers Snyder's recurring lack of cohesion in his films (save for the director's cut of Watchmen), and the movie is best enjoyed as, simply, a movie, and nothing more. Which is a shame, because the successes of this movie are beyond mere moments; it achieves a certain flexibility in its tone and structure that few films try and pull off, and even fewer films actually achieve. Maybe the originally cast lead, Amanda Seyfried, would have been the missing link to the movie that is and the movie that could be, but as is, we are left with a fascinating, yet flawed (I think I already see the problems his Superman movie will have) drama-fantasy-sci-fi-actioner.

Recommended (despite its flaws) to fans of outside-the-box sensationalism (i.e. Sin City), Zack Snyder, and GIRLS!! Seriously, hearing that the majority of the films audience have, so far, been male was a disappointment, because this is easily one of the more empowering female-centric action films I've seen in recent memory. But I guess that repeatedly shagging Ashton Kutcher, Jake Gyllenhaal, or Justin Timberlake without the threat of a long-term relationship is all the escapist fantasy that the current generation of young females need.

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Basically a very well-rendered, if not particularly imaginative, video game cut-scene, this actioner with sci-fi overtones concerns the military response to a hostile extra-terrestrial invasion, specifically on the coast of Los Angeles. While I disagree with Roger Ebert's half-a-star(!) review, I think he gave the movie too much credit by writing it a full-page review. This is not a full-page review type movie, because I doubt the execs ever gave a full page of notes during the whole show. This is a thin, thin, thin, thin movie, with terribly cliched dialogue, characters, and situations that even the most mildly educated cinephile will see coming a mile away ("Bye, Hoyt!"). The action is, until the end, pretty terrific, but it becomes obvious that the budget constrictions did not allow for ID4 or War of the World style carnage; even so, the more intimate battle scenes are nail-bitingly intense and well-choreographed. However, it does not fully redeem the grade-school scripting, and the movie is left to remain the cinematic equivalent of playing Gears of War for 2 hours (while being forced to watch the godawful dramatic cut-scenes, of course).

Slightly Recommended for action junkies, and fans of Aaron Eckhart, who is actually a badass and grizzled Staff Sgt. The rest of the cast is wasted, and if I see another movie where Michelle Rodruiguez pops up as a marine named "Santos," or anything similar, she will have fully lost her tough-chick street cred (although her "I got guns too, bitch" was a clear highlight in Avatar).

Rango (2011)

Inventive, ambitious, but somewhat void of emotion, this animated homage to spaghetti westerns revolves around the titular chameleon as he poses as a small-town sheriff (A+ for originality there) in an attempt to discover the true nature of his self (that part's better). The first act is the best, as Rango, voiced as a lively, scheming huckster by Johnny Depp, attempts to make his way through the desert after being unwittingly abandoned by his owners. With no presence of identity, instinct, or empathy, his futile efforts to contextualize his plight are very humorous and, dare I say, human, as plot takes a decided backseat to character development in these early scenes. However, once Rango arrives in the besieged town (*sigh*, there's always a besieged town), the narrative settles into the traditional western structure: 1. stranger arrives in town, 2. Series of circumstances force town into reverence of stranger, 3. stranger begrudgingly takes responsibility for the town, etc. blah blah they find out he's a fake and he has to stop being one anymore for the climax to go down in a satisfying, explosive way. Save for one third-act introspection sequence (which feels like the rest of the film from act one after a lengthy narrative detour), there are virtually no surprises in the latter half of the film, and everything that isn't deeply rooted in cliche is telegraphed miles in advance.

However, I must say, the character work in the film is strong enough to warrant checking out the film. For one, aside from the three leads (Depp, Isla Fisher, and Abigail Breslin), the casting is refreshingly anonymous (though not quite up to Despicable Me's daunting standards), with names like Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, and Bill Nighy turning in invisible and strong supporting work. They contribute to what ends up being the winning point of the film, its atmosphere. The sun-ravaged, desolate nature of the desert allows for a more cynical, worldly edge to the proceedings; sure all the different species of animals get along, but they are only doing so to survive in an otherwise uninhabitable region. The villains are mean, the heroes are open and endearing, and the supporting characters all but steal the film. But, in the end, the shallowness and obviousness on display are abundant enough to render any possible emotion or depth in the film moot and ineffective, and the film's thematic content, although sporadically phenomenal and magical, is basically left out to dry in lieu of explosions and flying bats with gatling guns (cool, but child's play compared to dogfighting dragons of all shapes and sizes *hint, hint*). That said, the opening 20 or 30 minutes are fun, interesting, and, surprisingly, provocative, and along with the breezy and easy pacing and tone of the film, as well as its deep respect for spaghetti western aesthetics, it is impossible for me not to recommend this film to anyone who thinks it would be worth their time.

Slightly Recommended to fans of slightly off-kilter animation (this is a Nickelodeon Films production, and is accordingly out there, without blowing kids' minds) or spaghetti westerns. While the film gets a little too clever, and not involving enough, for its own good, it is a fun romp that, thankfully, does not require 3-D to create its own immersive world.