May 31, 2013

Joss Whedon's Latest Is Truly MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING #IFFB

"When I said I would die a bachelor, I never thought I would live to be married."
During my freshman year of college, I had a required non-credit course called Playreading Aloud in which a a bunch of hungover theater majors (the class was held Friday mornings and for most of us it was the only class of the day) were gathered together to simply read classic plays out loud with no preparation.  I think the idea was to get us comfortable with the cold readings while simultaneously making sure we were all familiar with a basic theater curriculum.  Nobody took the class very seriously since there were no grades and no homework and while it certainly made for some entertaining moments here and there, the "performances" never went beyond the basic words on the page.  It wasn't really the kind of thing I'd make an audience sit through.

That basically sums up Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing.

Full disclosure: I love me some Whedon.  I discovered Buffy The Vampire Slayer in the seventh grade and while I admit that I was lured in because Sarah Michelle Gellar is really hot, I stuck around because the writing totally blew me away.  Whedon's ultra-clever patter falls squarely in my wheelhouse along with the likes of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet..  And as maddening as it can be at times (coughSERENITYcough) I have to respect the guy's penchant for abruptly killing off beloved main characters.  It's a ballsy maneuver that most writers/showrunners rightly approach with great trepidation, but the feeling that no one is safe creates an atmosphere of real danger that most films/TV shows lack.  I know there are those that find his directing style to be flat and uninspired, but it's never really bothered me one way or another.  I heard plenty of complaints that Serenity looked "cheap", but The Avengers certainly proved that the guy can handle scope.  The battle of New York is a fight for the fate of the entire world that's confined to a few city blocks and yet it feels like one of the most epic sequences in any comic book film to date.

Back to Much Ado.  The whole movie was essentially a lark for Whedon.  He filmed it in his own home over the course of 12 days while he was in post for The Avengers.  It seems that Whedon frequently holds informal readings with some of his favorite actor friends, similar to my ill-scheduled college class, and Much Ado was conceived directly from these get togethers.  Thusly, the cast is made up almost entirely of familiar faces from Whedon's myriad of past television and film projects, save for newcomer Jillian Morgese who Whedon apparently "discovered" while she was doing Avengers background work.  Morgese and her onscreen love interest Fran Kranz were both in attendance at the IFFB screening and in the Q&A afterwards Kranz admitted that the low-key production was so fast that they never really got the chance for any full blown rehearsals.

Unfortunately it shows.  Alexis Denisof's Benedick is shallowness personified - not the character, but the performance itself.  He's all awkward posturing and cartoonish facial expressions.  It reeks of someone who's being asked to perform Shakespeare's rich language on the fly and therefore never gets beyond the simplest surface reading of the text.  It certainly doesn't help that he's tragically over-matched by Amy Acker's complex and engaging Beatrice.  Unlike Denisof, she's able to convey heaps of emotion with the slightest of glances.  Beatrice feels like a real person, while Benedick is a caricature at best, which makes their eventual pairing all the more baffling.  The trio of villains played by Sean Maher, Riki Lindhome and Spencer Treat Clark (a.k.a. Bruce Willis's kid from Unbreakable) simply don't work and make next to no sense, arriving in handcuffs and immediately being allowed to roam Leonato's house unaccompanied for no particular reason.  Reed Diamond and Clark Gregg each have some excellent moments between them while Kranz and Morgese make the best of their anachronistic love story.  (It's hard at times not to feel like Leonato is essentially selling off his daughter to a friend of a friend and it's more than a little off-putting in the modern setting.)  From a comedy perspective, Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk unsurprisingly kill as constables Dogberry and Verges.  Their completely inept attempts at interrogation produce some of the film's funniest moments that don't involve people throwing themselves down stairs while attempting to eavesdrop.  Extra kudos to Lenk, whose ratio of laughs to lines of dialogue is probably the most lopsided (in a good way) of anyone in the cast.

But despite its modest entertainment value, I walked away from the movie with a bad taste in my mouth, feeling like the whole thing was just a tremendous missed opportunity.  Don't get me wrong, I love that Whedon is willing to do down and dirty projects like Dr. Horrible seemingly on a whim, but Much Ado just feels like a bunch of friends half-assing it in Whedon's amazing Santa Monica home.  If the script had been a Whedon original, or even his own adaptation of Shakespeare's story, that might fly.  But you just can't phone in Shakespeare.  The results lack any kind of depth and don't bring anything new to the table, either for the script or for Whedon himself.

At the same time, I wonder if that really matters for this film.  Our theater was packed with die-hard Whedonites (including one girl who was inexplicably dressed like Kaylee from Firefly) who would audibly squee with excitement whenever another member of Joss's familiars showed up.  The audience was just happy to see one of their favorite faces on the screen and let their brains connect the dots back to whatever Whedon character the actor had previously portrayed.  I'm therefore forced to ask: is this movie ever going to be seen by an audience that isn't stacked in Whedon's favor?  The film will get a limited release that will expand in the coming weeks, but it almost certainly won't be playing at your local AMC multiplex.  It is, after all, a black and white Shakespeare adaptation starring a collection of largely unfamiliar TV actors.  The only real star power driving the film is Whedon himself.  Granted his fans are the kind that are willing to go out of their way to seek out his latest opus, but will anyone else?  And if the answer is no, then maybe it's fine that Whedon is essentially preaching to the converted here.  By all accounts, he and his friends had a blast shooting the movie and I'm sure that most of his acolytes will enjoy the movie well enough.  I wish I could count myself among them, but this is easily my least favorite of his projects to date.  (Season one of Dollhouse is probably a bigger creative misstep, but at least it's redeemed by a top notch second season.)

That's not to say Much Ado About Nothing was a wholly unenjoyable experience.  I admit that I laughed heartily throughout the movie, but in the end it tragically lives up to its title - a tale told by a decent director, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Title: Much Ado About Nothing
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Reed Diamond, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Riki Lindhome, Sean Maher, Tom Lenk
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Independent Film Festival Boston

May 30, 2013

THE WAY WAY BACK Perfectly Captures Those Cape Cod Summers #IFFB

"No patterns on my quarter."
Winter in Boston is the worst.  Yes, the city looks gorgeous immediately following a snowfall, but that lovely white dusting quickly turns into puddles of soaking grey slush.  The temperature drops well below freezing, the wind will slice through all your five layers of clothing and your face turns raw and chapped moments after stepping outdoors.  As an added bonus, Boston's weather is so unpredictable that every year runs the risk that the winter will simply never end.  When I was in middle school, we had a blizzard that knocked out power in most of my town on April Fools Day.  Two years ago, a particularly nasty blizzard dumped about four feet of snow on us shortly after Thanksgiving and it didn't diminish until long after the official first day of spring.  Hilariously, the crushing humidity of summer can be just as bad, but the heat is far more manageable than the cold.  Summer brings baseball, barbecues and most importantly, beaches.  When residents look to flee the sticky mess of downtown in favor of ocean breezes, there are two options: head north toward the fishing town of Gloucester (made famous in The Perfect Storm) or head south towards Cape Cod.  Yes, like the potato chips.

I spent the first 20 summers of my life on Cape Cod.  My family has had a house down there since long before I was born, and while that might sound awesome it didn't always feel that way.  The Cape is certainly quaint and scenic, but there isn't actually a whole lot to do down there when you're a kid.  Once you've been to the beach, played golf (miniature or otherwise) and eaten some fried clams and lobster, your options start to seriously dwindle...especially when you're below the drinking age.  All that would probably be somewhat mitigated if you had a solid group of friends with whom to laze away the afternoons.  I've always been fairly outspoken once you get to know me, but years of being the oddball in school made it hard for me to introduce myself to kids out of the blue.  This meant I never really had a lot of "Cape friends."  Besides, our neighborhood always felt like it was largely populated by retirees, young couples and very small children, which made for some lonely teenage summers.  I ended up spending a lot of time with my family, lying on the beach reading while listening to mixtapes on my headphones.  That explains why I usually returned to school in September having read so many more books than the majority of my classmates.

I therefore found plenty to identify with in Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's The Way Way Back.  Their depiction of Cape life is wholly accurate, which is little surprise considering that they filmed on location and that Faxon himself is from northern Massachusetts.  I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories in general, but a coming-of-age story that takes place where I actually came of age is practically a slam dunk.  Duncan (Liam James) and his mom Pam (Toni Collette) are headed down the Cape to spend the summer at the house of her boyfriend Trent (a bearded, asshole Steve Carrell).  Duncan is quiet and a little withdrawn in the face of his parents' divorce (he spends the car ride down sitting alone in "the way way back", a.k.a. the backwards facing flip-up seat in the trunk of a station wagon, a.k.a. my favorite seat growing up) and it doesn't help that Trent is a total dick.  When they arrive, Trent's older daughter falls in with her normal summer friends while Pam is quickly assimilated into Trent's crowd of heavy drinking neighbors, including a couple played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet plus the over-the-top recent divorcee next door played by a pitch perfect Allison Janney.  Duncan is therefore left stranded with no one around but Janney's cross-eyed son and stammer-inducing daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a popular girl who's got a bit of an independent streak in light of her own family's drama.

The film really kicks into gear when Duncan wanders into Water Wizz*, a local waterpark run by Sam Rockwell's fast-talking slacker Owen.  He takes a liking to the kid and gives Duncan a job at the park, which is staffed by a colorful cast of characters including Maya Rudolph and writer/directors Rash and Faxon.  (Rash is best known as Community's Dean Pelton, while Faxon was the co-star of the underrated Fox comedy Ben & Kate.)  Duncan, feeling ignored while they adults cut loose for the summer, keeps the job a secret from his family and while his time at Water Wizz slowly coaxes him out of his shell (he gets the awesome nickname Pop 'N Lock after facing off with some rogue breakdancers) he gains the confidence to assert himself at home and stand up to Trent, who turns out to be an even bigger asshole than anticipated.

The script is not only flat out hilarious, but it's also endlessly quotable - hardly a surprise from Rash and Faxon who rightly won an Oscar for their script for The Descendants.  It certainly helps that the film is overstuffed with comic talent like Rockwell, Carrell, Corddry, Janney and Rudolph.  I'm sure they'll be pimping out Carrell in a few weeks when it comes time for serious marketing, but his Trent is pretty dry and hardly the star of the show.  The real laughs come from Sam Rockwell, whose endless stream of cutting one-liners absolutely bowled me over.  Rockwell not only has incredible comedy chops, but he's truly remarkable late in the film when Owen really embraces the surrogate father role.  I simply cannot understand why this guy is not a bigger star, as there's seemingly nothing he can't do.  And special mention must be made of Allison Janney, who simply kills in every one of her scenes as the manic, usually drunken neighbor Betty.  While she's constantly teasing her kids, (there are some great cross-eyed zingers) you can see the real love that's bubbling just below the surface.  Janney's an absolute tidal wave of boozy charm that washes over you and leaves you breathless with laughter in her wake.

But the heart of the film is Liam James, who can also be seen on AMC's The Killing, a show that is amazingly returning to television this Sunday despite being cancelled last year.  James brings a lot of soul to the part; whereas Duncan could have very easily spent the first half of the movie as a total sad sack (he wears jeans to the beach!) instead he comes off as more of a lovable basset hound - sad looking on the outside but downright playful underneath.  There are lots of great little moments, like Duncan lying on the hood of Trent's car and singing along to REO Speedwagon, that bring real dimension to the character.  James also serves as a perfect foil for Rockwell, the straight man to Owen's constant wisecracks.  In a lot of ways Duncan reminds me of myself at that age, and if my parents had gotten divorced when I was that young I probably would have reverted inwards in much the same manner.

More than anything else I'm happy to see such a solid directorial debut from Jim Rash and Nat Faxon.  It's the kind of crowd pleaser that I suspect will serve as the stepping stone to greenlighting an even more ambitious project down the road.  It also feels like a very personal film for these guys, and not just because I am at the center bullseye of their target demographic.  IFFB packed the large main theater for this screening and, unsurprisingly, it won the room over and then some.  (Granted there were a number of local crew members in attendance, but still...)  Obviously this is the kind of film that's going to be very well received in Massachusetts and the movie will play very well to anyone who's ever experienced a summer on Cape Cod.  That said, a New England residency is hardly required to appreciate the joys inherent of The Way Way Back.  It's all just texture for one of the most entertaining coming-of-age stories in recent memory.

This is a wonderful summer flick that's deserving of your attention.  I have no idea how widely Fox Searchlight plans to market the movie but it comes out July 4th weekend and, with the only other major releases that weekend of pretty dubious quality (The Lone Ranger and Despicable Me 2), The Way Way Back should serve as a refreshing alternative for audiences burnt out on big screen spectacle.  I'll be championing the film BIG time until then and I'll be more than happy to put my wallet where my mouth is when it finally appears at my local theater once again.

*Water Wizz is a real park in Wareham that I've been to many times.  Not changing the name of the park is a smart move, both for the movie and for the park's ticket sales.

Title: The Way Way Back
Directors: Jim Rash, Nat Faxon
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Independent Film Festival Boston

May 29, 2013

The Nuanced Alcoholism Of THE SPECTACULAR NOW #IFFB2013

(I knew when I started this project that I'd be spending more and more time in movie theaters all over Boston, but what didn't occur to me was the number of great local festivals I'd be able to attend.  I was able to catch two fantastic films, Cheap Thrills and I Declare War, at the Boston Underground Film Festival pretty early on and about a month later I stumbled onto the Independent Film Festival Boston.  I ended up spending most of the week there at the Somerville Theater, a gorgeous old movie house that I'd passed by a few times but never actually gone inside.  IFFB was not only very efficiently run, but it was an absolute blast.  I'm already excited for next year's festival.)
"This is the youngest we'll ever be."
When it comes to teenage drinking, I can't exactly speak from a lot of experience.  I never drank in high school for two reasons:

a) I was constantly busy with theater rehearsals, speech team and A/V club.  That leads me directly to:
b) my friends an I were (are) all huge nerds.

We didn't have big drunken house parties.  We watched Starship Troopers and played Taboo.  The only such party I ever went to was on Senior Skip Day, and I was one of about three sober people there. Booze never held much attraction for me until I got to college, where house parties were the order of the day, and even then I was never one for pounding beers.  The fact that I went to Emerson, a small school full of film and theater kids probably had something to do with that.  My girlfriend went to Boston College, where parties consisted of a refrigerator packed with nothing but Natural Ice.  (PBR would have been too classy.)  Emerson parties were filled with handles of Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervo and Southern Comfort.  The only common thread was the Solo cups.  These two drastically different environments made my relationship with alcohol fairly inconsistent for the beginning of my college career.  Thankfully I ended up moving in with two guys who appreciated really good beer, so I drank more to experience interesting new flavors and brew styles than simply to get plastered.  Except for my 21st birthday.  That was a shitshow...

Depicting teenage drinking on camera can be very tricky, as it's all too easy to fall into the quicksand of melodrama. Angry shouting matches with desperate parents, tearful girlfriends/boyfriends unable to help the person they love, a promising life pissed away in a bottle of whiskey and, of course, the inevitable tragic car accident.  So kudos to writer Scott Neustadter and director James Ponsoldt for crafting a story (adapted from the novel by Tim Tharp) that flirts with all of these elements but instead favors characters which feel very grounded in reality.  It's not about "the big moments" but instead about the million small ones that ultimately add up to make us the people we choose to be.

The story centers on the end of high school for Sutter Keely, a lovable mess of a guy who's constantly drinking while coasting on his quick wit and easy charisma.  With graduation on the horizon, his longtime girlfriend Cassidy finally decides she needs to be with someone who's got some direction in his life and breaks it off with Sutter.  He has a little too much to drink at a party soon after and ends up passing out on a stranger's lawn, only to be discovered by the sweet, smart but shy Aimee Finicky.  Sutter helps her finish her mom's paper route and the two become friendly, even more so when he realizes that she can help keep him from failing his last math class.  (Awesomely, his math teacher is Bubbles from The Wire.)  The friendship grows into an unlikely romance, with each bringing out the best in each other as they struggle to figure out their futures, both with and without each other.

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley received a special jury prize at Sundance for their work here and it's well deserved.  They've taken characters that feel like familiar teen-archetypes on paper and breath a rich, multi-faceted life into both Sutter and Aimee.  Moreover, The Spectacular Now approaches all the drinking in a manner that is both simple effective without feeling overblown.*  This is not a movie about alcoholism so much as a movie about a character who happens to be an alcoholic.  Sutter almost always has a drink in hand and a perpetual buzz, but like any good alcoholic he's rarely falling down drunk.  It never feels like drinking is being glorified, nor does it feel like a portentous specter hanging over his every action, forcing the audience to sit there for ninety minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop.  (While there's no Big Horrible Incident that the plot hinges upon, there is a moment on the roadside that looks at first like it's going to become just that.  Thankfully it's mostly a fake out.)  Instead of slowly spinning out of control, Sutter makes a series of heartbreaking choices.  There's one scene with Bob Odenkirk that's so simple and honest, yet it feels like a punch to the gut.  At the same time, as part of her adoration of her new love, Aimee starts drinking along with Sutter and it actually gives her a level of self-confidence she'd been lacking.  It's not a hollow, boozy bravado - we never really see her get drunk.  But she finds the courage to stand up to her deadbeat mom and do the kinds of things she'd never have been able to before getting involved with Sutter.  Aimee clearly doesn't have the same relationship with alcohol that Sutter does and she serves as a measured counter-balance, presenting the teen drinking experience in a very balanced way.  Ponsoldt doesn't shy away from the drama of alcoholism, but it all feels very down to earth and never devolves into a morality play.  I wish more movies were this nuanced.

Also, bonus points for using Kyle Chandler in such a way that I didn't spend the entirety of his scenes thinking, "It's Coach Taylor!"

*Ponsoldt's previous film, Smashed, focuses more on the destructive nature of alcoholism by focusing on characters that are a little bit older.  I'm looking forward to comparing the two.

Title: The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larsen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Independent Film Festival Boston

May 25, 2013

The Chuck Norris Power Pack, Part 1: MISSING IN ACTION

"Do you mind?  I'm a bit shy."
So my best friend from high school (who also officiated my wedding) is a guy named Bart.  We were born a mere two weeks apart, so every February we engage in a little birthday tradition: we give each other the shittiest movies we can find on DVD.  Seriously terrible stuff.  Ice Spiders.  Death Bed.  The Uwe Boll Collection.  Just the absolute worst of the worst.  

This year Bart outdid himself.

Along with The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (on blu-ray no less), he gave me one of those combo packs with multiple movies in one case.  Henceforth it shall be known as The Chuck Norris Power Pack.  It contained three movies starring the great bearded one: Missing In Action, Missing In Action 2: The Beginning, and The Delta Force.  There was simply no way I was going to watch these movies by myself, so when I recently went over to Bart's to break in his new TV, it seemed appropriate to bring them along.  Since I suspect that The Delta Force will probably turn out to be the best of the bunch (it's got Lee Marvin!) I figured we should start by lowering the bar a bit.  And thus we battled through Missing In Action.  

It only seemed fair to let Bart voice his own opinions on the movie, since he's the one who brought it into our lives.  I'm hoping to do a few more of these "conversational" pieces in the coming months, so let me know what you think.


Lets start with the following question: how in the hell did Chuck Norris ever become a leading man? Strike that, how did this guy become THE LEGEND he is today? His physical prowess is certainly legit. He's got serious karate skills (the guy was was an undefeated World Professional Karate Champion for six years, plus he fought Bruce Freakin Lee) and was famous for doing most of his own stunts. In his heyday, which definitely includes Missing In Action, I have no doubt that he could have broken me into many small pieces in a dozen different ways, but the guy has all the charm of a tree stump. Like the early work of Channing Tatum, Chuck Norris comes across as a walking absence of personality. I don't get it. Did people really respond to Norris? He barely speaks in this movie, and spends a lot of time silently taking in his surroundings or pensively staring into the middle distance. I can't tell if this was an intentional move to minimize the amount of "acting" or if director Joseph Zito honestly thought that Norris was pulling off some kind of smoldering Steve McQueen thing. (Note: IMDb claims that McQueen, who was a karate student of Norris, urged him to get into acting. Thanks a lot Steve!) Either way, it just doesn't work. Also, was Norris a legit sex symbol at this point? He's certainly treated like one, since his glistening chest hair is on display for much of the film's running time.

What's really surprising is the lack of actual fighting in Missing In Action. There's plenty of Norris stalking around the jungle with large automatic weapons and a hilarious bulletproof inflatable raft. (This was 1984, so one of the characters actually has to stop and explain what kevlar is for the sake of the audience.) However, there's very little actual hand-to-hand combat. That's Norris's ace-in-the-hole, yet somehow the movie suffers from a pronounced lack of roundhouse kicks to the face. Instead they've got Norris...climbing the sides of buildings? It reminds me of all those long, dull shots of the Enterprise flying through the many chambers of V'Ger in Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture, but here it's a black pajama-clad Chuck Norris shimmying up drainpipes. It's impressive I guess, but not exactly exciting stuff. I did enjoy that he spends the entire opening scene silently watching a Spider-Man cartoon, which I'm pretty sure means that Peter Parker is his spirit animal.

What do you think? Were you as let down as I was by the absence of sweet Norris fisticuffs, or was the absurd military action entertaining enough? Also, do you have a theory as to why Norris's James Braddock is somehow able to walk away from gunshots and grenade explosions without so much as a scratch? I'm thinking gypsy curse...

The first thing about the Chuck Norris Legend is the man's borderline absurdity. I think it works like this: when I was in college, I briefly dated a girl with dreadlocks...a redhead with dreadlocks. These are things that should not go together, and something about the awkward juxtaposition made it interesting, even if only in a fleeting way. Chuck Norris is, fundamentally, an actor who can't act and a martial arts master who isn't Asian. That's interesting...for a time. This was a large part of the problem with MIA -- it's only interesting when he's illustrating the contrast by fighting Asian guys or trying to act, and he simply isn't doing either of those things for most of this movie. Even on a conceptual level the direction of this movie shows a lack of understanding of this simple idea -- why would you include so many shirt-off shots of your leading man -- a sweaty, muscular action hero -- if the audience can't see his chest because Chuck has that bearskin-rug catcher's pad?

The next pillar of The Chuck Norris Institution is the simple idea that he is all that is Man. Remember that scene in Louie where the teenager harasses Louis CK in the donut shop and makes him beg not to get beaten up? What is Louie's date's reaction to this mother-creature of emasculation? She appreciates that Louie probably did the mature thing in avoiding the confrontation, but she has to dump him just the same because it was just so wimpy. She can't stay with him, just out of instinct. This is a function of natural selection, not choice. I go to this example for two reasons - first, because I love that show, and second because it illustrates the point that simply having a red beard does not grant you man-powers. It follows that being afflicted with big-fat-ginger-ugly-itis really comes from within. Chuck Norris doesn't have that gene. In the same scene, Chuck would have stared at the kid dead-pan until his eyeballs popped out of his head and pummeled the kid and all his little yelling friends. Mature decision-making wouldn't enter into the equation. Somebody threatens you, you beat him up. Hulk Smash!! And then you FUCK the plant.

I almost hate to say it, but all the Spider-Man stuff in this movie actually makes a ton of sense if you think about it. That's what Chuck Norris is in this movie -- a superhero without a face. Everything he does is superhuman - the careless violence, puzzling invulnerability, questionable motivation, and, of course, the inexplicable lack of consequences. Oh, and the needless climbing. And Chuck does it all without his face moving, just like Spider-Man. He just stares at you with those emotionless eyes and stone-faced...err...beard. And then you die, and he climbs away. The real problem, as you said while we were watching this, is that he only gets to fight minions, and he dispatches them far, far too easily and quickly because he's a superhero. There's no big baddie to legitimize his quest, no grand evil for him to defeat, no sleek Asian yin to his fuzzy ginger yang. He has no equal, and that makes the movie boring.

...that and the script, direction, acting, editing, and horribly misleading blu-ray box.

So who else was in this masterpiece? Can we officially classify M. Emmet Walsh as the strangest possible choice to pair with Chuck Norris in an action movie? I mean the guy was already 50 years old and about 260 lbs. when this movie was shot. They have to be the greatest odd couple in the history of Vietnam revenge movies. If they cast the tubby Walsh to make Norris look even more badass, it definitely backfired. Walsh easily gives the most convincing performance in the entire movie and I love that his refusal to go back to Vietnam eventually gets whittled down to, "I ain't gettin' off this raft."

Best of all, after some careful frame-by-frame examination, I think it's safe to say that during the big final stunt jump on the shark-faced battle raft, the AARP-eligible Walsh was doubled by a 24 year old Jean-Claude Van Damme! I'm deadly serious, Van Damme is a credited stuntman on the film and there is some heinously incongruous stunt doubling at play for pretty much everyone who isn't Norris. Can we confirm this?

And I would be remiss if I left out the great James Hong, who can soon be seen playing Ryan Reynolds alter-ego in the upcoming RIPD. He gets a few choice scenes as a smarmy Vietnam general who accuses Braddock of war crimes, but he gets dispatched (too soon) as a result of Chuck Norris's uncanny climbing ability. Somehow he's not even the real villain of the movie! It's actually some underling who tortured Braddock when he was a POW (this time it's personal!) played by a guy named Ernie Ortega. Is it possible they hired a Mexican to play Chuck Norris's Vietnamese nemesis? That would certainly explain why we couldn't understand A SINGLE WORD HE SAID. He was just speaking straight up gibberish!

Any theories on why all the minions kept trying to fight the assault raft by driving their trucks into the river? And how about that love interest? Can we even call her a love interest? I think we can call her a breathing human woman, but I'd hardly imply she was in any way interesting.

First things first -- that raft. We have to talk about Imperial Death Raft (...Raft Punk?).

We've already established that its kevlar hide made it nigh-indestructible, but somehow no one ever mentions its slipstream technology. I don't know how, but somehow it carried our bearded champion and his be-chubbered sidekick Lord-only-knows how many miles in a very, very short time. The convoy of trucks carrying the POW's had left, what, a half a day before Chuck blows up the camp they'd left? He catches the trucks in minutes. I think there's literally only one day-for-night shot in the interim. That' passage of time.

And about that convoy: one would think that, upon seeing Chuck coming, they probably should have just, you know, turned away from the river. But one would be wrong! Obviously they had jungle intel that Raft-narok wouldn't be stopped by something so pesky and trivial as land. So they decided to turn the whole motorcade into the river itself. Really, 90-degree turn directly into the river. Perpendicular. Maybe their plan was to limit his maneuverability by putting obstacles in his way -- I dunno. It's also moot, because, unsurprisingly, that sucker immediately went into super pursuit mode and started jumping over stuff and doing bombing runs. Too bad it didn't start making snarky comments at Braddock. That probably would have been better.

I'm not really sure what to make of the other characters. They were mostly there, I think, for the sake of audience expectation. None of them had any particular impact on the story at all. But a movie with no one for Chuck Norris to fight or befriend probably wouldn't be that interesting. Probably. There was that raft. Maybe if Mr. Feeney was involved.

Alright, final thoughts: single favorite Missing In Action moment? You already know mine: Chuck Norris is idly staring out the window of his hotel room in Thailand. He slooooowly buttons up his shirt, wanders over to a large maple wardrobe and then stands there methodically rolling up his sleeves in silence for approximately eternity. This prompted me to say, "Man, if there's not an angry Asian guy with a knife in that wardrobe, I'm gonna be VERY disappointed." Then, right on cue, Chuckles reaches for the wardrobe and a flurry of sharp-edged Vietnamese fury bursts forth from inside the wardrobe and I promptly take a screaming victory lap around the couch, arms raised in triumph. It was downright sublime.

Finally, what are you hoping for from Missing In Action 2: The Beginning, a.k.a. the movie that was shot first but released second as a prequel because the producers realized that THIS WAS THE BETTER MOVIE?!? Maybe if we're lucky Braddock will wander past someone painting the shark teeth on the front of a kevlar assault raft. Then he'll stare off vacantly over the horizon and whisper, "Next time..."

I want jungle warfare from the next one, plain and simple. And at least one roundhouse kick to the face. I'm pretty sure we didn't get any from this one.

My favorite part, wardrobe notwithstanding, was when the Robin to Chuck's hirsute Batman declared, unceremoniously, that he would not be getting off the raft. This seemed an odd choice to me, seeing as his much larger, much more comfortable, much more not-baking-in-the-Vietnamese-sun-without-any-water boat was, oh, 30 yards away.

But it was a pretty cool raft, though. I'll give him that.


Stay tuned for Missing In Action 2: The Beginning!

Title: Missing In Action
Director: Joseph Zito
Starring: Chuck Norris, M. Emmet Walsh, James Hong,  Lenore Kasdorf, Ernie Ortega, David Tress
Year Of Release: 1984
Viewing Method: Blu-Ray

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON Somehow Makes President Bill Murray Both Dull And Depressing

"Are you going to have dog?"
I love all things Bill Murray.  The guy can absolutely do no wrong in my book.  I could not possibly have been more excited at the idea of Dr. Peter Venkman playing the President Of The United States.  Not only that, but FDR is one of my favorite presidents of all time, so the idea of Murray as FDR pretty much put me over the moon.

This movie is fucking BORING.

I don't know how you fuck up President Bill Murray.  I really don't.  I guess the first thing you do is make him (at best) the third lead of the movie.  I was hoping for ninety minutes of Bill Murray being awesome.  Instead I got sixty minutes of Laura Linney being morose.  The other thirty minutes are dedicated to whether or not the King and Queen of England are going to eat a fucking hot dog.

I swear I am not exaggerating here.  Just endless Oscar Meyer-centric conversations between the British royals. Someone clearly thought that shit was hilarious.  That person should have their head examined.  It certainly doesn't help that the royals in question are King George and Queen Elizabeth, a.k.a. the same characters made famous in Tom Hooper's incredibly overrated The King's Speech.  That makes it hard to get through any of their scenes without my brain screaming, "YOU ARE NOT COLIN FIRTH!  WHERE'S HELENA BONHAM CARTER?  WHAT CRAZY ALTERNATE UNIVERSE HAVE I STUMBLED INTO?"  For real.  And I don't even like that movie.  In truth, both actors do a fine job, especially considering that approximately 70% of their dialogue revolves around wieners.  Unfortunately it's flat out impossible not to draw the comparison.

I feel lied to.  I feel betrayed.

What the fuck did I just watch?

President Bill Murray, why have you forsaken me?

Title: Hyde Park On Hudson
Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Billy Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Samuel West, Olivia Colman
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

May 24, 2013

A Spoiler-Filled STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Rant, or Why J.J. Abrams Should Stick To STAR WARS

"Is this who we are now?  Because I thought we were explorers."
I'm done with J.J. Abrams's infamous "mystery box."

Let's get this out of the way right up front.  It's Khan.  We've all been saying he's Khan since Benicio del Toro was almost cast back in 2011.  But Abrams and friends refused to acknowledge as much whenever asked, believing in this misguided marketing strategy centered around keeping the villain's identity a mystery.  And yeah, that would've been cool if most of the English speaking world had spent the last few months convinced it was the wrong guy.  In that case, the eventual reveal would have been shocking and made a real impact on the audience.  But that's not what happened.  As soon as everyone had worked out Benedict Cumberbatch's identity, Abrams and Paramount should have ditched the mystery box and been upfront with us: "Yeah, alright, he's Khan.  But this Khan is different!"  That at least would have been honest.  Instead they chose to double down, telling us all that he was "John Harrison", which only further cemented everyone's belief that we'd be seeing Khan and annoyed  people in the process.

Ironically, people have pointed out that Marvel actually played the villain shell game far more effectively with Iron Man 3.  (Spoilers for IM3 too.)  Everyone was so focused on Ben Kingsley's Mandarin that when he was revealed to simply be Aldrich Killian's puppet, audiences were truly caught off guard.  Comparatively, when Cumberbatch growls, "My Khan", the long awaited confirmation of the obvious lands with a wet thud.  The parallel between Star Trek and Iron Man is ironic because in reality both movies are perpetrating almost identical bait-and-switch routines.  It turns out that while Khan is certainly a criminal, the one who's actually pulling the strings is Admiral Robocop, who was secretly a militaristic asshole all along.  It's hardly a shocking revelation, (especially since the very first announcement of Peter Weller's casting described him as another villain) but it certainly would have played better if most of the audience wasn't still fuming about being misled for a year and a half.

But this leads me to my biggest complaint with the movie: it's a waste of Khan.  I always felt it was a mistake to revisit the character in the first place.  The whole point of reforging the timeline was to give the filmmakers the creative freedom to blaze a new path through a familiar universe without being slaves to continuity.  Immediately bringing back an old nemesis is dumb, especially someone as iconic as Khan.  What's worse, they don't even use him intelligently!  Khan is a genetically engineered "superman" who is always both the smartest and the strongest guy in the room.  He's a master strategist, as ruthless as he is brilliant while also being charismatic as hell.  What made him so memorable in Wrath Of Khan was seeing how that brilliance and charisma were twisted into mad vengeance after Kirk inadvertently banished him to a desert wasteland for 15 years.  He may be a relic from 300 years in the past, but he's still always a step ahead.  Doesn't that sound like a fascinating character?

Instead of all that, we get a guy with magic anti-death blood* who can punch hard.

No, seriously though.  Like, SO HARD.

And he has no agenda of his own!  Khan should be the evil mastermind, but instead he's just Peter Weller's attack dog that manages to break his leash.  Khan attacks Starfleet because he thinks that Admiral Robocop killed his crew, and when he finds out they're still alive he manipulates Kirk in order to kill the Admiral and save his people so they can get back to the business of being badasses.  He's a dick to Kirk, that much is sure, but Khan ultimately doesn't care about him one way or the other.  Kirk's just a means to a very murky end.  If it had been revealed that Khan was actually using Admiral Robocop all along for his own nefarious purposes...well at least that would have been worthy of the name Khan.

That's the other thing.  When it comes right down to it, Cumberbatch's character is really Khan in name only.  Let's ignore the fact that he's magically gone from Hispanic to British with utterly no explanation.  (Carol Marcus is also British in this new timeline despite having an all American daddy.)  His entire backstory is told in such broad strokes as to become practically irrelevant.  Khan was originally a major historical figure, the Hitler of the Eugenics Wars in the 1990's.  (How did I miss those?)  He and his genetically enhanced followers sought to cleanse the Earth of inferior beings, so they were eventually captured, cryogenically frozen and shot out into space.  All of that should remain the same even in the new Abrams timeline, but almost none of it is mentioned.  Instead, we get a phone call to Old Spock (I love Leonard Nimoy, but that shit is just lazy) solely to assure us that Khan is indeed the most evil evil who ever evil-ed.  Essentially, if you're not a Trekkie and you haven't seen Wrath Of Khan before walking into this movie, Cumberbatch's character is just another asshole with nebulous superhuman abilities.  We're not presented with a version of Khan that is in any way compelling in his own right or even connected to Ricardo Montalban's Khan in any meaningful way.  (Cumberbatch has said that he deliberately avoided watching Montalban in order to make the character his own.)  The fact that he's named Khan is just this side of an easter egg.  Within the context of Star Trek Into Darkness, he's just a hired gun who's gone rogue.  To extend the Iron Man 3 comparison, he's not even Ben Kingsley.  He's James Badge Dale.

It's ultimately indicative of a seeming bewilderment as to how to treat both the original canon and the Trekkies in the audience.  Both of Abrams's movies are jam-packed with references both casual and overt to people, places and events from the original continuity.  But in this latest outing there's no sense of direction within the material.  Writers Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof seem intent on keeping as many familiar elements as possible, but are then willing to fundamentally change them for no discernible reason.  It's almost as if they were given a mandate that the movie must contain X number of Trek references "to keep the nerds happy" but no one actually cared about how they were used.  At it's heart, Star Trek Into Darkness is about the struggle for the soul of Starfleet.  In light of Nero's attack and with the Klingon Empire looming on the horizon, Admiral Robocop is convinced that the galaxy is filled with nothing but dire threats to humanity.  He wants to turn Starfleet away from exploration in favor of pure militarism and Kirk gets caught in the middle.  On the one hand he wants revenge for the murder of Christopher Pike, but he's got Scotty and Spock rightfully pointing out the legal and moral quandaries of executing an accused criminal without trial.  And that could be a very compelling story in its own right!  Some of my favorite stuff from DS9 came from the years when they were engaged in a protracted war with The Dominion, forcing Sisko and crew to make some tough choices while grappling with their own consciences.  My point is, Benedict Cumberbatch's character could have been just plain old "John Harrison," rogue agent of Section 31 who seeks revenge against the superiors who betrayed him and it wouldn't dramatically impact the story.  It doesn't require that he be Khan.  You tweak a few minor details and the movie remains essentially the same.

In fact, it probably would have been better.  If not for Khan, we certainly would have been spared the rehashing of one of the greatest death scenes of all time.  The moment is telegraphed from a mile away and much of the dialogue is identical just to drive the point home.  Reversing the roles might seem like a good way to alter the dynamics of the scene, but it's dramatically stupid.  That scene is so effective in Wrath Of Khan for a number of different reasons, including Spock's simulated death during the Kobayashi Maru sequence which deflates the audience's expectations and the fact that the whole movie is about how we choose to accept death and growing old.  The scene carries so much weight because Spock and Kirk are lifelong friends with an incredibly rich history together.  In Abrams's riff, not only do the characters lack the bond that drives that scene, but we all know that Kirk's not going to stay dead, giving the scene zero dramatic stakes.**  At least when Spock died, he fucking DIED.  Yeah, he came back in the next film, but there's a difference between spending an entire movie showing just how far Kirk and his crew are willing to go (including stealing and then sacrificing the Enterprise) just on the mere chance that they can restore their friend, versus sending Spock on a five minute footchase atop flying cars.  The only reason the scene works on any level at all is due to the talents of Pine and Quinto, who really sell the shit out of it.  Quinto even manages to make the infamous "KHAAAAAAAAN!" scream work, at least to the point where the audience didn't immediately burst out laughing and/or groaning.

But why do I need to see all that stuff AGAIN?  If I want to watch Wrath Of Khan, I'll watch Wrath Of Khan.  Who wants Diet Khan when you can have the real thing?  I'm sure the writers think they're putting their own interesting spin on this stuff, but it ends up coming off as disrespectful to the source material.  I've long maintained that the reason I hate CBS's The Big Bang Theory is because, while it gets all the references factually correct, the series lacks any true geek soul.  It always feels like a show written by cool kids with some kind of Nerd Wikipedia.  Somehow the same feeling persists throughout Star Trek Into Darkness.  When it's all said and done, I can't tell who Abrams is trying to play to here: he bends over backwards to insert Khan into the story and bases the entire marketing strategy around his presence, but then doesn't actually DO ANYTHING with him.  They essentially reshoot one of the single best scenes in the entire franchise, but eliminate everything that made it so great in the first place.  It's like he's somehow kowtowing to fans while simultaneously spitting in their faces.

This is hard  for me to write, because I really, really wanted to love this movie.  My lifelong love of Star Trek has been well documented and when it came to this summer's big releases, Star Trek Into Darkness was one of those flicks for which I had some seriously high hopes.  (As opposed to something like Pacific Rim, for which I have seriously high expectations - a subtle but important distinction.)  Abrams's first Star Trek is a movie that works in spite of itself.  I love the meandering, philosophical approach of most of the original Trek series as well as the focused storytelling of the good (i.e. even numbered) Trek movies but, much like the last few Brosnan-era Bond films, the franchise had become bloated and stale. It needed a good kick in the pants and that's exactly what Abrams managed to do with his alternate timeline reboot.

I really can't oversell just how miraculous that film's success truly was.  The idea of revisiting iconic characters like Kirk, Spock and McCoy without Shatner, Nimoy and Kelly seemed like pure folly on paper, but Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and (surprisingly enough) Karl Urban all managed to charm the pants off of both diehard Trekkies and non-fans alike.  Moreover, the script for that first movie is all over the fucking map, a result of going into production in the midst of the writers' strike and having to shape a fair amount of the story after the fact.  Seriously, the entire second act of that movie is a mess; everything between the destruction of Vulcan and Kirk taking command of the Enterprise makes negative sense.  But the cast is so charming and you're having so much damn fun that you barely notice until it's all over.

I wish I could say the same about Star Trek Into Darkness.  (That title is still absurd.  In the entirety of this franchise, the word "trek" has never and should never be used as a verb.)  That's not to say the film is a total disaster.  The opening scene is fun, if a bit braindead - Kirk fucking around with a race of primitives and stealing something solely because "they were worshiping it" is vintage Original Series, whereas Spock rappelling into a volcano is about six kinds of silly.  And while lots of people complained about an underwater Enterprise, I'm more annoyed that the ship is constantly flying through planets' atmospheres.  Starfleet ships don't land, that's why they have orbital spacedocks and are equipped with shuttlecraft.  The Godfather III helicopter assassination scene at Starfleet HQ is a nice bit of action, as is the chase and accompanying shootout on Qo'nos (incorrectly spelled "Kronos" on screen for no particular reason) and Kirk and Khan's space jump.  I would, however, like to request a moratorium on chase/fight scenes that take place in a shifting gravity field.  Yes, it was awesome in Inception, but it was super-lame in Total Recall and just kind of dull here.

Pine and Quinto are both at the top of their game and Simon Pegg does really great work as Scotty this time around.  Much like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it's nice to see him actually get something to do in these movies.  There isn't NEARLY enough of Karl Urban's Bones (a sentence I never thought I'd find myself typing before actually seeing him in the role) and Harold Sulu gets one really kickass moment before getting relegated to the background with a red shirted Checkov.  (The look on Anton Yelchin's face when Kirk tells him to change shirts is pretty great.)  I don't really have a problem with the Uhura/Spock romance.  What I do have a problem with is that other than one staredown with a Klingon, Zoe Saldana doesn't do anything in this movie that isn't about their relationship.  The woman has incredible screen presence and it's a shame to see her so stranded.  Alice Eve is similarly wasted as Carol Marcus's Lingerie, although I suspect that the intention is to set up her love affair with Kirk in the next film.  Benedict Cumberbatch is good because Benedict Cumberbatch is ALWAYS good, even in a role as ill-conceived as this one.  And I'm always happy to see Peter Weller getting some work.

Star Trek Into Darkness is entertaining enough that non-Trekkies will have a blast while watching it and probably forgive the film's dumber moments.  It's hardly the kind of thing that will put the franchise back in cryostasis (see what I did there?) and even with a somewhat disappointing box office draw, a third movie is assured.  The film ends with the Enterprise heading out on its five year mission of exploration into deep space, a prospect which is still rife with intriguing possibilities.  When Voyager premiered, I was excited at the prospect of a ship being stranded in the unknown, encountering all new aliens and natural phenomena.  The sense of real exploration was one of the strengths of The Original Series and something that got lost as The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine focused so much energy on familiar races like the Klingons and the Cardassians.  It still feels very possible that Abrams is trying to set up some kind of huge conflict with the Klingons next time around.  After all, they're a fan favorite who remain underexposed in this new timeline.   But I'm hoping for more.  I'm hoping for a story based on discovery, something entirely new from the established canon.  I'm hoping for a movie that takes place way out on the galactic frontier, with Earth nowhere to be seen.  I'm hoping for a movie that finally mines the wonderful threefold relationship between Kirk, Spock and Bones.  I'm hoping for a movie in which Kirk actually wears his gold uniform shirt for more than 20 minutes of screen time, instead of constantly putting him in "cooler" looking uniforms and disguises.***

But most of all, I'm hoping for a brand new creative team next time around.  The rebooted franchise has been defined by Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof.  But Abrams has Star Wars to deal with now (which is what he always wanted in the first place) and those writers have plenty of other projects to keep them busy.  They did the impossible: they brought Star Trek back from the dead, found a capable group of actors to take up the mantle and managed to inject a sense of real adventure into a franchise that most considered intellectual and boring.  I'll be forever grateful to them for reviving my favorite thing in the world.  But now is the time to bring some fresh creative energy to the table.  I'm sure there are no shortage of writers and directors who would love the chance to come play in the Starfleet sandbox, so let's hand over control to someone who will really focus on strong storytelling.  (I'm looking at you, Brad Bird...)  All the moving pieces are already in place and there are an infinite number of directions you can take the Enterprise and her crew from this point on.

Let's try to avoid space whales.

*Bones injecting Khan's blood into the dead tribble might be the clunkiest moment in the whole damn movie.  It's like that shot of the cook in Hunt For Red October, only less subtle.

**It's also ridiculous that Bones can't use the magic blood from one of the 72 other frozen people sitting in sickbay to cure Kirk from acute death.  It could have been explained away in a single throwaway line of technobabble and the fact that they didn't even try shows just how little regard the writers truly have for the audience.

***I'm convinced that someone involved thinks the classic uniforms look "too silly."  It's this kind of thinking that has superheros like Spider-Man and Iron Man constantly taking off their masks throughout their respective movies, and it's dumb.

Title: Star Trek Into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bennedict Cumberbatch, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX 3D

May 22, 2013

THE HANGOVER PART III Brings The Trilogy To A Dramatically Satisfying Close

"You don't talk to madness."
Comedy sequels are usually pretty crap.

The Hangover was an absolute MONSTER hit, grossing close to a half a billion dollars.  That kind of success is hard to follow, and even though Part II ended up making even more money, it was generally considered to be a creative misstep.  The movie is structurally almost identical to it's predecessor, albeit set in a more exotic location and with gags that are even more disgusting and psychotic.  With this third entry, I think audiences might be a bit trepidatious, fearful that they're going to see the same story told with diminishing returns, but let me assure you that is most definitely not the case.  The Hangover Part III is a very different beast.  How different?

Well for one thing, they dropped the central conceit of the entire franchise.

Let's back up.  The first film leans heavily on Bradley Cooper's Phil as the take-charge cool guy who's determined to follow the clues to find the missing groom while Part II focuses on Ed Helms's Stu (and the demon inside him) as he learns to grow a pair and take charge of his life.  Part III therefore centers on Zach Galifianakis's Allen, an almost literal manchild who needs to grow up once and for all.  Following a completely insane opening stunt with a giraffe, Allen's father (Jeffrey Tambor) dies of a heart attack and everyone decides that the only way to help Allen turn his life around is for The Wolfpack to drive him to rehab in Arizona.  But they're quickly run off the road by Marshall, a gangster played by John Goodman who's looking for $21 million in gold that was stolen by Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong).  After breaking out of a Bangkok prison (with a nice little nod to Shawshank) Chow has dropped off the grid and Marshall is convinced that The Wolfpack are the only ones who can find him.  So he kidnaps Doug* as collateral and gives the guys three days to find Chow and hand him over.

From there it's a mad scramble to track down Chow and the gold, a journey that will take them through the deserts of Mexico and ultimately all the way back to Las Vegas.  There are plenty of extremely funny set pieces, including a really fantastically staged bit with Galifianakis dangling from the roof of Caesar's Palace ("Did you guys know this whole place is made of marbles?") and a bizarrely adorable scene with a pawnbroker played by Melissa McCarthy.  All the laughs are there and each of the three leads is just as sharp as ever.  Ken Jeong's Chow is the true embodiment of depraved chaos, a cocaine-fueled black hole of destruction.  A lot of viewers seem to be pretty burnt out on Jeong's particular brand of comedy, but this is easily some of the best work he's done to date.  He's not just over the top silly (although he's that too) but Chow's got a real darkness to him that Jeong embraces to wonderful effect in a few key scenes.

While the previous entries are pretty much non-stop crazy hijinks, this latest film actually has strong sense of pathos throughout.  That's not to say it's not a funny movie, because it very much is, but the overall tone is very different from the first two adventures.  For one thing, people fucking die in this movie, whereas the other movies are just filled with hilarious maiming.  Not only that, but the death isn't played for laughs; when they witness a character get brutally gunned down in front of them, the Wolfpack is appropriately disturbed.  That's indicative of the larger stylistic shift of this movie.  Giraffe scene aside, the plethora of sophomoric gross-out gags have been replaced by a fairly dramatic character journey on the part of Allen as he searches to find some way to come to grips with the idea of living a normal life.  There's a really funny yet moving scene where the guys go back to visit Heather Graham's prostitute character and Allen comes face to face with the one-time Baby Carlos, now five year old Tyler. (In a nice nod, he's played by one of the same infants who played Carlos in the first movie.)  Allen looks astonished to see how Carlos/Tyler has grown into a little person, almost as if Allen expected him to stay a baby forever.  It's a big moment for Allen and Galifianakis plays it beautifully.  Galifianakis has always been face of this franchise, but it's here that he's revealed as the heart and soul of the trilogy as well.

Director Todd Phillips took a lot of shit for Part II, accused of making the same movie in a different setting a` la Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.  In a weird way, I think that Part III actually turns The Hangover franchise into a sort of sly deconstruction of the fundamentals of all trilogies.  Part I is a strong comedy based on a simple conceit (everyone gets accidentally drugged and someone is missing!) and Part II relies on the same story but pushes the gags way over the top.  (Face tattoo!  Monkey!  Severed finger!)  Part III forgoes most of the shocking humor in favor of stronger storytelling.  And, in typical third-movie fashion, the film bends over backwards to tie everything back to the first movie and bring back as many familiar faces as possible.  That's not a complaint.  In fact, I think it's kind of great, and in a way it almost redeems Part II.  Almost.   I don't know why, but in a weird way the whole thing reminds me of the Back To The Future trilogy.

I'm curious to see how folks react to this last entry.  My sense is that the word of mouth after Star Trek Into Darkness's premiere has been muddled enough that there'll be substantial drop off at the box office, but THe Hangover is also opening opposite Fast & Furious 6, which I suspect will ending up being a bigger box office draw.  (I am 100% unironically excited about FF6.  I'm not quite sure how that happened.)  But this is a long holiday weekend, so I have no doubt that The Hangover will rake in plenty of cash for Warner Brothers and continue to do so in the coming weeks.  Even folks who were unhappy with Part II will probably still show up for this one because the comedy potential here has pretty much no ceiling.  That said, I think most audiences will be pretty surprised by what they find here; I had no idea what to expect going in, but it certainly wasn't a darkly comic character piece about learning to embrace maturity in the face of madness.  I say it's a fitting close to the franchise, but I wouldn't be surprised if I'm in the minority there.

Final note: I saw this at an advanced screening that was largely for press and some sponsors.  (There were two rows of seats reserved with Samsung signs, so I expected to see everyone in the movie using a Galaxy S4 or something.  If they did, I missed it.)  The only seats available for general pass holders were the top three rows of the theater and all the lower floor seats that require you to tilt your head back at a ninety degree angle.  Thankfully I got a good seat in the back, but I was surrounded by people who spent the whole movie talking at full volume, predicting what was about to happen and describing in detail how they would have acted differently from the characters.  I will NEVER understand that shit.  I loooooove seeing movies on the biggest screen possible in a theater packed full of people.  It's how movies were made to be seen and I will defend real theatrical exhibition to my dying breath.  But these people are half the reason that so many folks would rather wait to watch a movie at home.  The theater is not your living room.  It's not a place for talking and tweeting.  Children can master this concept with ease, so I'm baffled when grown adults can't seem to wrap their heads around it.

It usually takes every ounce of my willpower not to turn around and yell at the offender and while stifling that impulse is not always successful, this time I remained polite and focused on the film at hand.  Amazingly I was still able to enjoy the movie, but I was annoyed enough that I left the theater while the credits were still rolling and apparently I missed out on a pretty great stinger.  In my defense, there was no "Hey, I just found my camera, let's look at these pictures" moment at the end, so I figured it was probably safe to exit.  I should have known better.  Guess I'll have to try and catch the end of a screening next time I'm at the theater.

Thanks a lot, loud assholes.

*I can't wait for the inevitable Hangover spin-off franchise, The Fantastic Adventures Of White Doug.

Title: The Hangover Part III
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifinakis, Ken Jeong, Justin Bartha, John Goodman, Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Regal Cinemas Fenway

May 21, 2013

Celluloid And Digital Travel Along, Singin' A Song In SIDE BY SIDE

"Technology pushes art and art pushes technology."
I consider myself lucky that I got to experience both the death of analog world and the birth of digital.  I remember playing actual records in my house as a little kid.  (I was of that rare breed that listened to Yellow Submarine and The Monkees in equal measure.)  Eight-tracks were before my time, but I did own a red and yellow Sony Walkman with a little window in the back that showed the actual gears turning as it played the Ghostbusters II soundtrack on cassette tape.  I remember having my mind blown by the graphics on the first Nintendo console and spending what felt like an entire Christmas day watching my older cousin play Super Mario Brothers all the way to the end.  But when it came to movies, VCRs and VHS tapes were just an accepted part of my reality.  It was always easy to watch movies at home, but even as a child I could tell that the viewing experience just wasn't the same.  In fact, I vividly remember getting into an argument with my parents about how much I wanted to see a movie (I think Neverending Story II) in the theater as opposed to waiting for it to come out on video...not because I didn't want to wait, but because "the picture doesn't look the same."  VHS always felt soft and fuzzy, whereas projected film had all kinds of wonderful grain and texture that simply didn't exist in my living room.

The argument over image quality is only one aspect of Side By Side, a documentary produced and hosted by Keanu Reeves that explores "the science, art and impact of digital cinema."  For anyone who's ever wanted to learn more about the actual technical process of filmmaking, this doc serves as a wonderful primer.  First of all, director Christopher Kenneally walks you through everything from shooting to editing to color timing to exhibition to archiving.  It's a simple but effective layman's tour of an art form that millions adore but few truly understand.  Moreover, Reeves and Kenneally have assembled a varied and auspicious collection of film talents to offer their own opinions on the perils and promise of digital filmmaking.  We're talking about cinematic legends of every stripe and more Academy Award winners than I could count.  Some, like Chris Nolan and Wally Pfister are die hard film devotees, while folks like Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch and Danny Boyle have fully embraced the freedoms of shooting digitally.  And that's just a taste: we also see household names like Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, George Lucas, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Joel Schumacher, Lars Von Trier and Andy & Lana Wachowski, as well as journeymen like Bill Pope, Anthony Dod Mantle, Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Ballhaus, and Walter Murch.  This is a documentary I would have loved to work on because I could listen to these guys talk about movies for DAYS.

The impact of digital reaches into every single aspect of cinema.  For instance, did you know that the production of celluloid film cameras ceased two years ago?  At the same time, design and innovation of digital capture cameras is currently moving a blistering pace and there's good coverage of the plethora of highly buzzed about cameras with badass names like Genesis, Alexa and RED Epic.  When it comes to theaters these days, everyone's talking about 2D vs 3D, but there's also a fascinating conversation to be had about digital vs celluloid projectors.  For instance, I recently donated to the Kickstarter project for the Brattle Theater in Cambridge to help them get a new digital projector in order to continue showing older films in rep.  It's a necessary acquisition as studios have become more and more reluctant to send out bulky and costly film prints as opposed to compact digital drives.  (Because the Brattle is awesome, they're keeping their 35mm projector as well.)  And if you've been hearing people throw around the term "4K" and want to know what the hell they're talking about, Side By Side has you covered.  There are also startling implications in terms of film preservation.  Since the advent of digital video there have been over 80 different formats and the majority of them are currently unplayable.  (David Fincher notes that he has shelves filled with original tapes of his incredible music video work, and most of it he can't actually watch.  That's depressing on so many levels.)  George Lucas makes the valid point that so much of the world's information is currently stored digitally that there's simply no way that we as a society will allow these formatting issues to continue; at some point someone's going to figure out a way to maintain digital information over the long term, but until that happens celluloid remains your best bet when it comes to film archiving.  You keep a celluloid print in a cool, dark space and it'll last for a hundred years.  Meanwhile, I just got a crate of old VHS tapes from my parents and I haven't owned a VCR in over a decade.

I think the key to this documentary is in the title.  For so long the debate has been about whether or not digital can/should replace film outright.  These arguments are usually centered around image quality, specifically that digital simply doesn't look the same and that film purists are so attached to that specific visual aesthetic that they'll never accept what they consider to be a substandard picture.  However, as more time passes and digital cameras become more and more omnipresent, I think that issue becomes less and less important.  (When it comes right down to it, the majority of audiences in your local multiplex can't really tell the difference anyway.)  It's not about one replacing the other, it's about creative choice.  There are movies like Avatar and Sin City that simply would not exist without the advent of digital.  And it's not just effects.  Digital cameras have become so much smaller and lighter that there are opportunities to physically shoot in ways that are impossible with traditional film.  (28 Days Later and Che are held up as great examples of this argument.)  Meanwhile there are incredible artists out there who have spent a lifetime honing their craft using the tools of celluloid, so they're going to continue working in that medium.  And I wouldn't want them to change!  Let Wally Pfister shoot his movies however the hell he pleases.  While he comes off a bit combative in his interview, at the end of the day he knows what a camera can and can't do and I want him to have the freedom to use every tool available to him.

When Peter Jackson's The Hobbit was released last year, the conversation was dominated by the presentation of 48 FPS.  One reviewer (whose article I can no longer find) rightfully pointed out that everyone was treating the higher frame rate as the canvas, when really it should be considered as just another type of paintbrush.  Ultimately I feel the same way about digital in general.  Yes, there are gonna be studio heads who push the use of digital because it's cheaper, and Chris Nolan makes a salient point when he says that he's constantly having to justify shooting on film, while no one's being asked to justify shooting on digital.  But it's really all about storytelling, and while the technology will certainly evolve and change over time to meet creative needs, it doesn't need to erase everything that came before.  I see both film and digital continuing on for a long time to come, each serving the will of artists and the imagination of audiences, side by side.

(Sidenote: The final line of the film is probably the most awkwardly edited last line of any documentary I've ever seen.  It sounds like they cut the guy off mid-word.  So weird.)

Title: Side By Side
Director: Christopher Kenneally
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Stephen Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle, James Cameron, Anthony Dod Mantle, George Lucas, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan,
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

May 17, 2013

OBLIVION Is Big, Beautiful And Uninspired

"How can a man die better / then facing fearful odds / for the ashes of his fathers / and the temples of his Gods."
As soon as the credits started to roll on Oblivion, I turned to my friend Jeff and said, "You know, one of these days someone's going to give Joseph Kosinski a decent script, and he's gonna make a hell of a movie."

I'm a big fan of the original Tron, so I was pretty excited at the prospect of a sequel with old man Jeff Bridges.  Kosinski was handed the reigns to Tron: Legacy and it turned out...disappointing.  But you have to admit it's a very good looking movie.  Most of the problems stem not from Kosinski's visuals, but from a script that's lackluster at best and a leading man who looked uncomfortable in his own skin.  (Garrett Hedlund looks far more compelling in smaller budget stuff like On The Road and Inside Llewyn Davies, so maybe he should just steer clear of franchise studio pictures.)

Pretty much all the credit/blame for Oblivion goes directly to Kosinski, as it's almost entirely his creation.  He wrote the graphic novels which served as the treatment for this film, and he wrote the script along with talented guys like Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek.  Also, I will fully admit that I just plain love Tom Cruise.  Yeah, in real life the guy might be absolutely batshit crazy, but I could care less so long as he keeps giving us entertaining performances.  And whatever you may think of him personally, you simply cannot accuse him of ever phoning it in for a paycheck.  Whenever he's on screen, Cruise absolutely throws himself into the role 1012% (that's a precise calculation) so that even his less successful films can usually boast solid work from the actor.  One of my favorite single Cruise moments is at the end of Mission: Impossible III, when he's running along the banks of a river in China to save his wife and the guy is just HAULING ASS.  Most actors will pace themselves in a scene like that, because they know they're gonna have to do multiple takes from multiple angles so they can stitch the shots together to create excitement and tension.  But here it's just one long tracking shot and Cruise doesn't break stride for even a second.  In a way, that one shot tells you everything you need to know about Cruise.

I'll say this much for Oblivion: it's a fucking gorgeous film.  Watching this movie in anything other than IMAX (2D!) is almost a disservice to the film itself, if that's any indication.  Kosinski specializes in breathtaking imagery of tremendous depth and scale, so it really does behoove you to watch this as large and as crisp as humanly possible.  (This is the opposite of an airplane movie, although I have no doubt that it will be appearing on JetBlue before long.)  Kosinski strikes me as more of a technical, George Lucas-y director than an emotional, Steven Speilberg-y director; that is to say that he seems more interested in experimenting with the look and feel of his movies than he is in crafting memorable characters and stories.  Put another way, he's so in love with building worlds that he neglects the people in them.  Here's a taste of what I'm talking about.  Above the post-apocalyptic scenery, both lush and desolate, is the Sky Tower.  It's a glass-encased home on a dizzying spindle where Jack Harper and Victoria (Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough, respectively) live and work to maintain a series of drones and generators which provide power to the last human colony on Titan.  Normally the stunning views from such a location would be achieved digitally and the actors would be performing on a large green screen stage, but Kosinksi decided to go in a much cooler, old-school direction:

I love everything about that set-up.  It's so smart in a number of different ways.  Also, I want to live there.

That being said, the story and the characters both just sort of lay there flat.  Since I'm behind the curve here (I expect the film will be out of theaters sometime in the next two weeks) I'm not gonna run through the story and it's various reveals, but most reviews have already pointed out that the plot borrows liberally from numerous other/better sci-fi films like Moon, Wall-E, and Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.  To be honest, that didn't bother me so much; sci-fi is constantly drawing ideas and stories from the same communal well.  Sure it would have been nice if Kosinksi could have taken all those familiar elements and elevated them in some way, or put his own spin on them.  But when it's all said and done, it doesn't feel like lazy storytelling, just uninspired.  Besides, these are the kinds of concepts I always enjoy watching, even if they're inadequately explored.  Time travel is inherently cool, so pretty much any movie involving time travel instantly becomes interesting to me.  (There's no time travel here, it's just an example.)

By now it's clear that Oblivion is not a movie that's going to set the world on fire, but I think it's entertaining enough.  Cruise isn't amazing, but that's the fault of the script, not his performance.  Andrea Riseborough gives a lovely, fragile performance as Cruise's partner, especially when Olga Kurylenko's mystery woman shows up.  Morgan Freeman gets a cool wardrobe and a cigar, while Melissa Leo and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are both squandered talents.  Also, Zoe Bell may or may not have been silently standing around the entire time, but I didn't notice her until three minutes before the movie ended.  It's Kurylenko that truly feels like the weak link here.  She feels like she's following in the footsteps of Thandie Newton, an actress who's never given a performance I've enjoyed.  Granted Kurylenko is better here than she was in Quantum Of Solace, but not by much.  I've got Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths queued up to watch tonight and I'm hoping to catch up with Terrence Malick's To The Wonder as well.  If neither of those guys can coax a convincing performance out of her, I think that's probably game, set, match.

And let's be honest: it's nice to see a big budget, (visually) ambitious sci-fi movie that's not based on a pre-existing property.  Those are the movies that always stretch the boundaries of our imagination, and these days such efforts feel few and far between.

At least we still have Elysium to look forward to.

Title: Oblivion
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Zoe Bell
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: IMAX (Jordan's - Reading)

May 16, 2013

National Lampoon's VACATION Is The Hilarious Chaser To An Emotional Day

"I think you're all fucked in the head!"

When I was a kid, Chevy Chase was the definition of "not funny."

It's all a matter of timing.  When I started to really become aware of individual actors in that way where their very presence influences your desire to see a particular movie, Chevy's career was in the doldrums.  He was churning out unwatchable crap like Cops And Robbersons and Man Of The House.  He really didn't turn it around until his memorable arc as a major villain on NBC's Chuck, which of course led to his fantastic work as Pierce Hawthorne on Community.  In fact, the last time Chase was the lead in a truly great movie was 1989's Christmas Vacation, which means we're talking about roughly twenty years (a.k.a. most of my life) of appearing in wall to wall cinematic garbage.

Thankfully, at some point in high school or college I discovered Caddyshack.  And Fletch.  And Spies Like Us.  And the first season of Saturday Night Live.  And I remembered he was one of The Three Amigos.

It was like a slap to the face.

"Ohhhhhhh, this guy used to be HILARIOUS!  What the hell happened?"

I never watched any of National Lampoon's Vacation movies growing up because, on the surface and in the context I understood Chevy Chase at the time, they sounded like more middle of the road, whitebread family comedies.  (Again, this was before I had seen Animal House and really understood what to expect from the Lampoon.)  I had absolutely no idea how subversive these movies really were.  And even when I did finally get into the Vacation series, I did it all wrong.  I think I saw Vegas Vacation first because it was the only one I actually remember coming out in theaters.  That was followed by European Vacation, which I liked but didn't love, and eventually Christmas Vacation.  In a lot of ways, Christmas feels like the safest one of the bunch; at the end of the day it's still a warm and fuzzy Christmas movie, but it's also flat out hilarious.  And somehow, after all of that, I had still never gotten around to seeing the original Vacation...

To give a little viewing context, the day I watched this movie was the Friday of the "Boston Manhunt," when I woke up to discover that the entire city was on lockdown while police officers went door to door through Watertown searching for marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  I was lacing up my shoes to go to work when I got an alert that the T (subway for you non-locals) was not running and I flipped on the TV to see what was going on.  Jamie and I spent the next 12 hours essentially glued to the television, watching and waiting for some kind of development in the pursuit.  Work was cancelled for the day, but I simply could not bring myself to turn off the local news in favor of my daily film, so I got a little writing done instead.  Eventually my parents and my sister came over and we watched as police cornered Tsarnaev on that infamous boat and eventually took him into custody a little after 8:30 PM.  At this point we were starving for dinner, so we all piled into the car and headed to Terry O'Reilly's pub in Newton, which is one town over from Watertown.  (We could see the police lights as we pulled off the Mass Pike.)  The crowd at the bar was small since they'd only been allowed to open after the lockdown was lifted, but we were boisterous and relieved, applauding the cops on the TV and raising our glasses while listening to every song from or about Boston on the jukebox.

We got home around midnight and Jamie and I were so exhausted that we immediately crawled into bed.  I lay there for about three minutes, at which point I said, "Oh shit."

Jamie turned to me, already half asleep.  "What's wrong?"

"I haven't watched a movie yet today."

And so I pulled myself out of bed and out into the living room in search of something to watch.  I checked the DVR and remembered that I had recorded Vacation on HBO a few days prior.  Humor seemed appropriate for the day, so I dove right in.  There's simply no need for me to go through the plot at this point, but I will say that the movie lived up to it's reputation.  It's a very sharp comedy, which is no surprise coming from director Harold Ramis and writer John Hughes in their respective primes.  Honestly, if someone had told me that those two guys were largely responsible for this movie, I would have gone out of my way to see it a lot earlier.  The strength of the family dynamic really holds the film together, so no matter how insane things get, you really believe in the bond that keeps these characters together.

The exception here is the subplot with Christie Brinkley as the hot blonde in the Ferrari.  Make no mistake, all of Chevy's long distance silent flirting is wonderful, and I love the way that Clark Griswold can instantly transition from nerdy family man to charming rake.  (Those oversized glasses really help.)  I even buy it when, after fighting with Ellen and feeling like his family has turned on him, he struts into the hotel bar in those incredible white shoes and actually ends up having a drink with the mystery girl, which leads to some late night skinny dipping in the pool.  It works because she's the instigator and Clark is largely following her lead, testing the boundaries of his fidelity and seeing how far he can go before his own morality kicks in.  The way he gets caught is also very funny, but it's the aftermath I couldn't get on board with.  Ellen sort of pouts for a few moments, and then turns on a dime and leads Clark back out to the pool for their own naked swim time.  I'm sorry, but I can't think of any woman I know, (my wife chief among them) who would catch their boyfriend/husband naked with another woman and not only forgive him in under five minutes, but then basically suggest they go bone in the hotel pool.

Otherwise the movie is filled with excellent gags, especially the entire ordeal with Aunt Edna* and her poor, poor dog.**  Considering how big a role he would come to play in all of the Vacation sequels, I was surprised that Randy Quaid's Uncle Eddie didn't make more of an impact.  He's certainly one of the best things in Christmas Vacation, but he's also bugnuts crazy in that movie.  Here Eddie seemed positively tame.  (Oh, and hello young Jane Krakowski!)  I'm always a sucker for outdated computer gags, so I loved the scene with the Atari at the beginning.  The old west saloon is a well executed bit and I'm always happy to get a solid scene from Brian Doyle-Murray in a funny hat.  The end at Wally World is pretty perfect, the kind of insanity that so typifies 80's comedy and simply can't be pulled off today.  Plus John Candy just kills through that entire sequence.

I admit that after an emotional rollercoaster of a day, (see what I did there?) I fell asleep on the couch right as they got to Wally World and had to watch the ending three times before I got all the way through it, but I'm glad I finally checked this one off the list.  Much like The Monster Squad, this feels like a movie that I probably would have enjoyed far more if I had first seen it when I was Rusty's age.  There have been a few attempts to revive the Vacation franchise, most recently with Ed Helms playing a grown up Rusty Griswold and Christina Applegate as his wife taking their own family on vacation.   The project seems to have been shelved for now, but I'm curious if the family road trip premise is something that can still strike a chord with audiences.  Is that something that people still do?  My parents certainly took us on plenty of trips, but we never spent days driving from state to state.  It would be interesting to see how a reboot/remake would handle that aspect of the story.  I'm guessing iPads would be heavily involved.

*Yes, I had an easier time believing they would strap a dead woman to the top of their car, then leave her in their cousin's backyard in the rain than I did believing in that pool scene.)

**This scene destroyed me.

Title: National Lampoon's Vacation
Director: Harold Ramis
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Randy Quaid
Year Of Release: 1983
Viewing Method: HBO HD