April 30, 2014

PAIN & GAIN And The Redemption Of Michael Bay

"Every man needs to fight for his dignity."
Michael Bay has been making the wrong kinds of movies.

It's easy to take shots at the low-grade dogshit he's been churning out for the last few years.  The Transformers movies are an ongoing exercise in cinematic embarrassment, a tsunami of visual clutter, muddled tone and flat humor with just a pinch of racism and homophobia.  That shit is so overwhelming that it'd be easy to write Bay off entirely as a hollow shell of spectacle and overindulgence.  The man's entire career has become all about making stuff that looks cool and sounds badass with little regard for stuff like storytelling or character development.  Bay is all slick affectation with nothing below the surface.

Which is why Pain & Gain might be his best movie ever.

Based upon the Miami New Times articles by Pete Collins (a very lengthy but totally worth your time read) Pain & Gain tells the horrifying true story of three bodybuilders who (after a few hilariously failed attempts) kidnapped a wealthy gym member, held him hostage for weeks, tortured him and forced him to sign over all his money and assets.  They tried to kill him and unsurprisingly fucked that up, but that didn't stop them from living in their victim's home, pretending to be CIA agents, and eventually trying to pull the whole thing off again only to see it all blow up in their faces.

The ringleader of the gang was Daniel Lugo, played by Mark Wahlberg in a performance strongly reminiscent of his best work with David O. Russell.  (I Heart Huckabees 4-Eva!)  Lugo is a lovable sociopath, a guy who's seen way too many action movies and who possesses just enough knowledge about the business world to be truly dangerous.  He can charm octogenarians and muscleheads alike, with a winning smile and a flawless physique that instills in him a confidence that belies his limited intellect.  Lugo can make his (even dimmer) cohorts believe that he is the man with the plan, totally in control and able to handle any situation with ease, whether that be a home invasion or a complex business deal.  Of course it's all a smokescreen, but what makes Lugo utterly fascinating is that even he buys into his own bullshit.  The guy actually believes himself to be a competent businessman, military tactician and criminal mastermind, when in reality he's all sizzle and no steak.

In other words, he's Michael Bay.

It's impossible to watch Lugo blindly throw around tactical terminology while outlining his various kidnapping plans without thinking of Bay's own military hard-on so prominently displayed in the Transformers movies, to the point that I can help but wonder just how self-aware Bay really is about the whole thing.  This is easily his best looking film in years, eschewing the gritty, palid high-contrast of stuff like Bad Boys and The Island in favor of the bright, saturated neons and pastels of Miami.  I saw this theatrically in 4K and it was absolutely breathtaking.  The whole movie almost plays like a feature length music video, overstuffed with hero shots, extreme closeups and American flags galore.  Bay shoots the movie the way Lugo sees himself: fast, furious and foregoing logic in favor of sheer badassery.  The film is a jigsaw of narrative devices that have no business being in the same room together and yet Bay manages to weave it all into a tapestry of sublime crazy that somehow works in spite of itself, not unlike Lugo himself.  Not only is there a copious amount of voiceover, but the film has a bewildering SIX different narrators and more needle-drops than a Run DMC album.  It's a batshit crazy true story told with rock-star flair, to the point that eventually it becomes hard to say who the real hero of the film is, other than perhaps Bay himself.

What's not difficult is determining the film's breakout star.  While Wahlberg is superb, he is upstaged at every possible turn by Dwayne Johnson, who is nothing short of jaw-dropping.  In fact, he's so damn good that when I recently described the movie to a friend, I refused to refer to Johnson as The Rock because he has unquestionably transcended his pro-wrestling persona here.  Johnson has always been charismatic and entertaining, but his Paul Doyle is nothing short of fascinating on every level.  A recovering coke addict who found Jesus while serving time for home robbery, Paul is earnest and lovable until he's suddenly not and he quickly plummets down the rabbit hole into absolute lunacy.  It's an incredible character journey, the kind of performance that I didn't really know Johnson was capable of delivering.  Of course it helps that he gets all (Every.  Single.  One.) of the funniest lines in the film.  If you still think of Dwayne Johnson as just a wrestler who makes action flicks, this is the movie that will forever change your mind.

We're getting a fourth Transformers movie whether we like it or not.  The fact that Shia LaBeouf has been run out of town is certainly encouraging and Mark Wahlberg seems to be able to key into Bay's particular brand of madness, maybe even enough to elevate the film above the level of utterly dreadful.  If Wahlberg can't do it, maybe giant robot dinosaurs can.  Who knows?  What I can say is that I don't give a shit.  I'm no longer interested in Michael Bay's big-budget franchises.  If nothing else, Pain & Gain proves without a doubt that Michael Bay's biggest enemy is excess.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but Bay needs to navigate away from $200 million dollar tent-poles and instead focus on smaller, weirder character movies that allow his peculiar sense of style to really take focus.  Pain & Gain might be completely ridiculous, but it also feels incredibly personal to Bay.  For the first time in a decade, he actually seems to give a shit about the movie he's making as opposed to simply collecting a massive paycheck and it absolutely shows in the finished results.  Unlike every other film Bay's directed since Bad Boys II, this isn't a chore to sit through.  In fact, it's an absolute pleasure.

Stop playing to the lowest common denominator and let your freak flag fly, Mr Bay.  It's the best thing you've got going for you.

Title: Pain & Gain
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeung, Michael Rispoli
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical 4K  - AMC Boston Common

April 14, 2014

Podcast Episode 12: BUBBLE BOY Remains An Irrational Favorite

"Dog poo?  THIS IS AWESOME!"
This is the episode which proved that I need to get better microphones.

It's important to revisit films from time to time in order to see if our memories of them still hold true.  Sometimes the movies we thought were so fantastic as children turn out to be decidedly less so when viewed through the lens of adulthood.  (I'm looking at you, Hook.)  At the same time, some movies that we may have once dismissed as dull or confusing can take on new life with a more mature perspective.  (Close Encounters is an all-time favorite, but I didn't truly appreciate as a child.)

And then some movies are exactly they way you remember them.  Bubble Boy is just such a movie.

I wish I could remember how I discovered this zany road trip comedy starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal as Jimmy Livingston, a wide-eyed and housebound kid with no immunities who builds himself a bubble suit and takes off for Niagara Falls in order to stop the woman he loves from marrying her tool of a boyfriend.  I must have stumbled upon the thing on TV and in all likelihood I was far from sober when I first saw it, but I was totally won over by Gyllenhaal's endearing performance and the sheer insanity of the characters and situations he encounters.  Don't believe me?  At one point Jimmy gets picked up by a busload of energetic and identically dressed eunuchs all named Todd and Lorraine whose cult (called Bright & Shiny!) is led by Fabio.  There's also a biker gang led by Danny Trejo, a train of circus freaks led by Verne Troyer (a.k.a. Mini Me) and Jimmy's ultra-Christian mother (Swoosie Kurtz) and near-silent father (John Carroll Lynch) all hot on his trail.

I'd hardly refer to Bubble Boy as an objectively good movie, but by all rights it should have been much, MUCH worse.  Most of the credit goes to Gyllenhaal, whose essentially a big lovable puppy dog trapped in a transparent beach ball.  That might seem hard to believe considering the dark and dour roles he's been playing of late, but he's downright hilarious.  There isn't an ounce of irony or malice in Jimmy, and Gyllenhaal has enough natural charm to smooth over some of the script's rougher patches.  It's just hard not to love the kid and you want to see him win the hand of "the whore next door."  And while most of the road trip stuff still absolutely kills me, I think it's the stuff before Jimmy sets out on his journey that really makes everything else work so well.  The relationship between Jimmy and his mother is just as funny and heartfelt as it is terrifying and awful; he loves her unreservedly and she really does want what's best for him, even if she does make all the wrong choices towards that end.  Their relationship is perhaps best summed up in the scene where Jimmy gets his first erection and tries to smash it with a baseball bat, at which point his mother rushes in and rather than explain what's happening, instead teaches him how to make it go away by saying the Pledge Of Allegiance over and over again.

Everyone in this movie is essentially a living cartoon character, right down to the Asian mud wrestling MC screaming about $500 and the Indian driver of an ice cream/curry truck.  But that doesn't make it any less funny.  Bart, newcomer Fernando and I had all seen Bubble Boy many times before and it's almost alarming just how often we find ourselves quoting this movie.  But we hadn't watched it (certainly not together) in many years, so I was curious to see just how well it would hold up.

It totally held up.

Jamie was far less taken with it, finding the story extremely predictable and the characters far too silly, but that's a justifiable criticism and not all that surprising.  While our individual tastes have a lot of overlap, when it comes to comedy Bart and I tend to revel a bit more in the sophomoric and the absurd than Jamie does.  Suffice it to say that Bubble Boy hits us right in the sweet spot.  I may never be able to looks at it objectively, but in this case I'm fine with that.  I'll admit that there's way too much Blink-182 in this movie, but the simple truth is that Gyllenhaal's shouts of glee after stepping in a pile of dog shit still make me laugh.  And that's good enough for me.

Episode 12 also includes some thoughts on the sure-to-be godless Battlestar Galactica movie, the pitfalls of a Sinister Six movie, Fox's plans for a new crop of X-Men spinoffs and whether or not Stephen Colbert can somehow elevate the tone of The Late Show.  We do get a bit shouty in this one so the audio is a bit dicey at times.  Like I said, I need better microphones.

I know we promised you an episode dedicated to Cheap Thrills, one of my favorite films of last year, but the local midnight screening was unexpectedly rescheduled for this coming weekend.  We'll definitely be in attendance at the Coolidge this Friday night, but I'm also going on vacation the next day with limited Wifi service for the following week.  Bart and I will certainly be discussing Cheap Thrills, but it probably won't be until May.

Title: Bubble Boy
Director: Blair Hayes
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Swoosie Kurtz, Marley Shelton, Danny Trejo, Verne Troyer, John Carroll Lynch, Brian George
Year Of Release: 2001
Viewing Method: DVD

April 11, 2014

BEN-HUR Is Way More Jesus-y Than I Expected

"Hate keeps a man alive.  It gives him strength."
One of my favorite episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is "The Zeppo."*  It's the story of Xander Harris, the only member of the self-described Scoobies without any kind of supernatural powers or abilities.  He's just a good dude, and therefore he's often relegated to making a pithy comment before getting knocked unconscious while Buffy kicks some demonic ass.  But "The Zeppo" is Xander's chance to shine, as he gets entangled with a group of Sunnydale jocks who have been resurrected from the grave and plan to blow up the school.  Buffy and the gang are otherwise occupied trying to defeat some unspeakable horror somewhere off-camera, totally oblivious to Xander's struggle to protect his friends from this smaller but no less lethal threat.  Occasionally the two plots intersect, but the episode brilliantly pushes the traditional A-story into the margins in order to focus on the awesomeness of a character that had never really gotten his due.

Ben-Hur is "The Zeppo" of the New Testament.

There are certain older, venerated films that have permeated pop culture and the collective unconscious to such a degree that we feel like we've already seen them, even if we've never actually done so.  You might not have seen Citizen Kane, but you probably get a "Rosebud" reference or jokes about sleds.  Most people are probably familiar with the image of Charlton Heston kneeling on a beach andscreaming at a wrecked Statue Of Liberty, but play the first 20 minutes of Planet Of The Apes and most people probably wouldn't know what they're watching.  (In my generation, I attribute much of this behavior to topical humor of The Simpsons, which likely served as the first introduction to much of this older material for most of my peers.)  It's marvelous to see that these Hollywood classics are still a part of our societal dialogue, but at the same time it seems as if there's a growing sense that there's no need to watch the actual film so long as you can "get the reference."  I've been guilty of this cinema crime myself over the years, which was a big motivating factor for beginning this project in the first place and the exact reason I started out with a vintage title like Apes.

It's astounding just how far the pop culture perception can fall from reality.  If say "Ben-Hur," the first two words that should jump into your brainpan are "chariot race" and with good reason.  It's a thrilling piece of filmmaking, steeped in drama, violence and intensity all accomplished without bashing you over the head with a lot of dialogue or over-the-top music.  What I hadn't realized until the movie started was that the phrase "chariot races" comprised the full extent of my knowledge about Ben-Hur.  I didn't even know this was a heavily religious film, let alone the fact that Jesus himself shows up multiple times.  Hell, the full title of the film is Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ!  How did I make it this far without making that discovery?

Honestly, if I had known that this was essentially an elaborate fanfic detailing the backtory of the guy who gave Jesus water on the way to the crucifixion, I probably would have opted for Spartacus over Ben-Hur.  I was all pumped up for some ancient Roman action, and instead I got a lot of leprosy and horse-whispering.  Sure the chariot race kicks ass and the naval battle sequence is a masterclass in building tension, but the film is overly long and extremely slow at times.  I'll always love older epics for their use of exotic, practical locations and endless crowds of extras, if for no other reason than because it's the kind of moviemaking you just don't see anymore in the age of digital effects.  After all, why spend money traveling to the far corners of the globe and then recruiting a few hundred background actors when you can do all of that from the comfort of a cubicle in Burbank?  Still, even the charm of old Hollywood isn't enough to overcome my biblical apathy.

"The Zeppo" is brilliant because it's lean and tightly plotted, which is pretty much the opposite of the sprawling, meandering Ben-Hur.  I have no problem with sheer length of running time if the scope of the story demands it, but I'm simply unconvinced that such was the case here.  In fact, the most frustrating part of William Wyler's epic is that most of the Jesus stuff feels downright extraneous; if this had just been a tale of ancient Jewish vengeance, I would have enjoyed it infinitely more.  The other great thing about "The Zeppo" is the way it satirizes the standard Buffy story structure, playing on the melodrama of yet another world-ending crisis by examining it through the sardonic eyes of a marginalized character.  It's little wonder that, while Ben-Hur is definitely not my cup of tea, I will love Monty Python's Life Of Brian for the rest of time.

The filmmaking is impressive to be sure and there's a reason Ben-Hur won every Oscar imaginable.  I'm certainly glad that I finally watched this one, but I also seriously doubt that I'll ever revisit it again.

*The title refers to Zeppo Marx, the brother who traditionally played the straight man and never got the chance to play any of the truly zany comedy of Groucho, Harpo and Chico.

Title: Ben-Hur
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Haraheet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe
Year Of Release: 1960
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

April 10, 2014

Podcast Episode 11: To The End Of The Line With CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

"To build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down."
You guys, I think Marvel might just be unstoppable.

Captain America: The First Avenger is without question my favorite of Marvel's Phase One movies, not counting The Avengers itself which is a movie that I will watch anytime, anywhere.  (I think the Avengers movies will be historically viewed more as punctuation marks to each phase of Marvel's slate.)  I have no real history with Captain America, save for an irrational fondness for Albert Pyun's terrible adaptation from the early 90's.  In truth, that probably has less to do with Matt Salinger's Steve Rogers and more to do with President Ronny Cox.  But I love the classic WWII pulp adventure of The First Avenger and Chris Evans is so great in large part because he understands that the heart of the character lies in Skinny Steve, a beacon of honesty and morality who's always willing to face impossible odds in order to do the right thing.  The fact that Evans has got great comic timing, he oozes charisma and he looks believable dispatching a horde of Hydra soldiers is just the icing on the cake.

Iron Man 3 set a pretty high bar when it kicked off Phase Two.  Thor: The Dark World did an admirable job meeting that challenge.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier clears it.  Handily.

This is not just the best Marvel movie (it probably is) or one of the best all-time comic book movies (it definitely is); this is just a flat out great movie.  In fact, I'm convinced that if you took away the superhuman elements, the shield, the wing suit, the villain trapped in the computer and the cryogenically preserved killer with the robot arm and simply made Steve Rogers an upstanding, accomplished soldier shining a light on a world of shadow and subterfuge, you'd still have a helluva flick on your hands.  Cap is "the man out of time," but rather than waste time on his confusion over pop culture references or modern technology (Avengers already handled this perfectly) writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely choose instead to dwell upon the inevitable clash between Steve's mid-century idealism and our modern surveillance, complete with its love of drones and its tendency to sidestep due process in the name of security and convenience.  There's a fundamental flaw within the system that only Steve is willing and able to correct; Steve knows that while S.H.I.E.L.D. may have their heart in the right place, they're doing a big thing badly and he's ready to burn the whole thing down if necessary.  It's a great throwback to the conspiracy/spy thrillers of the 1970's, stuff like Three Days Of The Condor and The Parallax View.  That they also managed to snag Robert Redford for a key role creates an unspoken authenticity which elevates every scene that he's in.

Of course some of those old school thrillers have a tendency to become so opaque that they start to drag after a while. The Winter Soldier never drags.  In fact, it quite literally puts the "thrill" back in "thriller."  (I can't believe I said that either.)  The action comes hard and heavy, whether it's Cap single-handedly taking down a Quinjet, dispatching a boat load of Algerian assassins or hunting down his best friend turned sworn enemy. But this isn't just meaningless combat; each set piece has clear physical and emotional stakes and the Russo brothers smartly favor wide angle shots that really let the audience see what's happening, a note that feels obvious but is increasingly less so in modern cinema.  This film is many things, but boring simply ain't one of them. 

It's not that I can't wait to see this movie again. It's that I can't wait to see this movie ten more times.

Bart and Jamie give their own two cents in Episode 11 of the podcast, but it's all largely positive (and unapologetically spoilery).  At this point I think we're all pretty much in the tank for Marvel, but I'm totally okay with that reality and I continue to count down the days until I get to see Burt Macklin and Uhura team up with a gun-toting raccoon and a talking tree to fight off legions of alien baddies.  We also speculate on Winter Soldier's impact on ABC's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. show and for what it's worth, this week's episode proved Jamie totally correct and me totally wrong.  That they passed up such a perfect opportunity to connect the Agents with what will certainly be their biggest hit of the year in a way that costs them absolutely nothing only reinforces my belief that Marvel is still flailing around a bit when it comes to that show.  Bart and I also chat about the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and pray that Michael Bay will eventually leave the icons of our childhood unmolested.  At this point, that seems unlikely.

Don't forget to subscribe, rate and review us on iTunes, or on Soundcloud if that's easier.

Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Director: Joe Russo, Anthony Rus
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Emily VanCamp, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo
Year Of Release: 2014
Viewing Method: Theatrical IMAX - Jordan's Reading

April 08, 2014

Dave Grohl's SOUND CITY Captures The Joy Of Making Music

"There's no book store, there's no music store and there is no Sound City."
Sometimes the old ways are still the best ways.

When it comes to filmmaking, there are a lot of people involved behind the scenes that never quite get the same recognition as actors, directors and writers.  Lighting technicians, sound designers, editors, cameramen...the movies we know and love wouldn't exist without these fine folks.  They tend to be known and respected within the industry, but when it comes to the public at large they rarely seem to get their due.  The exact same is true in the music industry.  There are countless unsung heroes spanning the history of entertainment and if there's anything better than a documentary about notable unknowns, it's one that delves into the nitty gritty of how art gets made.

Sound City is a fascinating look back at the untold history of the legendary recording studio of the same name located in the Van Nuys, California.  The building was pretty nondescript on the outside and often looked even worse on the inside, (Legendary music producer Jimmy Iovine is shown standing in the middle of the studio muttering, "Someone should firebomb this place.") but Sound City was a magical spot that produced legendary music.  I guarantee you that not only were some of your all time favorite songs laid down at this studio, but had they been recorded elsewhere, they just wouldn't sound the same.  For fuck's sake, this is where Mick Fleetwood met Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham.

In other words, if you're a fan of Fleetwood Mac, you have Sound City to thank for it.

They were the ones who signed Rick Springfield to a recording contract and nurtured his early career, including getting him a regular gig on General Hospital and crafting his first number one hit.

In other words, if you hate the song "Jessie's Girl", you have Sound City to thank for it.

Director Dave Grohl (yes, that Dave Grohl) spends about two thirds of the film chronicling Sound City's epic history, including some of the things that made the studio so unique.  At the heart of Sound City was the infamous Neve board, a massive mixing board "built like a brick shithouse" that gave the engineers an absurd amount of control over the recording process and which only recorded to old analog tape.  There were only a handful of the boards ever produced and they were so elaborate that they were extremely expensive - the studio owner at the time bought a house for about half the cost of the Neve board - but the Neve made Sound City a singular place to make music.  Even with the advent of digital recording (which Sound City strongly resisted) that Neve sound simply could not be replicated.  The drum room also lended to the almost mystical quality of the studio, as it produced an incredible quality of sound that seemed to almost defy the laws of physics themselves.  Grohl and his sound department smartly utilize the various mic feeds and recording tracks to help properly illustrate all the different components involved in crafting something as basic and essential as a killer drum track.  There's a great bit where Grohl is whaling away on the drums and even before they layer in the other instruments, it's instantly recognizable as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Sound City had a tumultuous history, constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and in danger of disappearing.  They prospered during the 70's, when everyone wanted to record in the same studio as Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.  Sound City played host to Neil Young, Cheap Trick, Foreigner, Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon, The Grateful Dead and a host of other musical icons.  Then business floundered in the late 80's with the rise of synthesizers and the digital instrumentation that ran counter to the very soul of Sound City.  The engineers and studio producers are presented as a lovable, ragtag bunch with a million incredible stories to tell, and thankfully Grohl gives each of them their due.  The studio was about to go under in the early 90's, but it was ultimately saved by the arrival of Nirvana, who recorded the seminal Nevermind at the flagging studio and inspired a whole new generation of musicians to follow their example, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Queens Of The Stone Age, Rage Against The Machine and Weezer.  There's plenty of great vintage photography and video of these musicians hard at work laying down their music and I couldn't help but think back to my old cover band BiPFT! and all the hours we spent recording songs in my L.A. apartment.  Some days were non-stop fun while other days saw tempers flare.  Jamie likes to tell a story about the only time she came to visit while we were working on a song, singing the same riff over and over and over again trying to perfect the harmony and the timing.  We may not have had a fancy Neve board, but looking back on our no-frills recording sessions it feels very true to the spirit of Sound City itself, located about an hour north of us.  I miss those days more and more.  My iPhone is almost always on shuffle and whenever it plays a BiPFT! song in the car or on the subway, I'm instantly transported back to ny old bedroom on La Tijera Blvd.  And I can't help but smile.

The last third of the film details the death of Sound City, which finally went out of business in 2011.  But Grohl, who shared such a personal connection with the studio, refused to let it fade away without a fitting tribute.  The film itself would have been an admirable memorial, but Grohl took it one step further.  First and foremost, he purchased the studio's Neve board and installed it in his own 606 Recording Studio.  He then gathered together some of Sound City's biggest alumni, including Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Lee Ving, Rick Springfield and Sir Paul McCartney and recorded a really great album full of killer tracks.  And we get to watch them record the whole thing.  Everyone is just so overjoyed to be involved in the project and you can tell that, like Grohl, they all have a very personal connection to the legacy of Sound City.  Grohl himself has already secured his place in music history, but he brings such an infectious joy to telling this particular story it's hard not to fall in love with the guy, especially when he geeks out over the chance to record a track with an actual living Beatle.  And I started freaking out watching it because they're also playing with Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic.  In other words, it's Nirvana reborn, but with Paul Fucking McCartney sitting in for Kurt Cobain.  THAT'S INCREDIBLE!  The album itself is sneaky great, not super catchy at first blush but full of songs that slowly grow on you and reveal their true strengths on the second, third and fourth listens.

If you consider yourself a fan of music, you should be a fan of Sound City.  Grohl's film manages to capture the scrappy spirit of the once great studio as well as the blood, sweat and tears that went into so many of the iconic songs and albums that were recorded there.  Those songs may be what get passed down through the ages, but Sound City proves that the actual process of making music is no less fascinating and enjoyable than the final product.

Title: Sound City
Director: Dave Grohl
Starring: Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Lee Ving, Rick Rubin, Tom Petty, Paula Salvatore, Tom Skeeter
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Amazon Prime Instant Watch (Laptop)

April 07, 2014

IRON MAN 3 Finally Gets It Right

"Well I panicked, but then I handled it."
Here's the dirty little secret about the Marvel Cinematic Universe:  Iron Man is by far the most popular character, but his movies are also unquestionably the weakest.

The first film is almost shockingly free of action and lacks a strong villain, but it coasts by on the quality of the suit effects and the charms of Robert Downey Jr.  It gets credit for proving not only that the character could work onscreen, but that "second-tier" heroes could carry their own films.  Favreau directs with a lot of energy and he smartly uses a lot of practical effects whenever possible, but looking back it's hard not to see the movie as fairly small scale and somewhat cheap.  Still, it was good enough to launch the most exciting thing happening in movies today.  Iron Man 2 is bordering on unwatchable, a clusterfuck of lackluster action and S.H.I.E.L.D. wankery masquerading as plot.  Whenever I see it now, I mostly just get angry at it for squandering both the insanity of Mickey Rourke and the snake-oil brilliance of Sam Rockwell as Tony Stark's unscrupulous mirror image.

The law of diminishing returns would imply an utter lack of hope for a third installment, and yet somehow Iron Man 3 manages to claim the crown as the undisputed best of the franchise.  First and foremost, with The Avengers out of the way, this entry is not burdened with the overwhelming need to set up future franchises and move chess pieces into place for other movies.  Marvel already made their gamble and it paid off HUGE, so here they're able to step back and take a breath, giving us a strong and streamlined Iron Man adventure, something audiences had yet to truly experience.  The story is still deeply connected to everything that's come before, leaning heavily on Tony's PTSD following his brush with inter-galactic death during the battle of New York, but it works as character backstory and nothing more.  And without the constant presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a million Marvel easter eggs, core characters like James Rhodes, Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan finally get something more to do than stand around waiting for Tony to say something clever.

Downey Jr. also brings a whole new depth to Stark, no small feat in the character's fourth outing.  Sure, the PTSD stuff is all good, but we also see Tony grappling with his place in the larger universe.  He's someone who's always gotten by on his smarts and his bravado, yet now he's starting to realize that not only are there threats out there that he cannot comprehend, but also people in his life that he's willing to protect at any cost.  In a world complete with Hulks, super-soldiers and living Norse gods, the one suit simply won't cut it.  Stark goes deep down the rabbit hole, building a fleet of different armors to suit any need or crisis that might arise.  But like a recovery patient who becomes addicted to painkillers, Tony eventually gets lost in his own attempts to overcome his trauma.  It's not until he's forced to play dead and go it alone (along with the help of a smart and precocious moppet, of course) that Stark rediscovers the pleasure and therapeutic value of simply building stuff.  Of being a mechanic.  Probably my favorite sequence of the entire film (save the awesome "house party protocol" at the end) involves Tony going Full MacGuyver on the Mandarin's henchman, dispatching a collection of thugs with homemade tazers and explosives pieced together from stuff at Home Depot.  I've never had to deal with any kind of really serious personal trauma like that, so I can only speak from a limited perspective.  That said, on the few instances when someone close to me has died suddenly, I definitely prefer to keep myself busy with work or whatever, rather than dwell upon whatever's upsetting me.  I find that focusing my attention on other tasks is a good way to remind myself that while tragedy may happen, life still goes on and the most important thing is to keep moving forward.  I don't really wallow anymore.

But it's not all character drama; there's enough action in this film to put its predecessors to shame.  Holy smokes.  On the heels of The Avengers, it was clear that this movie had to take things up a notch.  Thankfully, Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel understood this and brought out the big guns in the form of Shane Black.  I dig Favreau quite a bit, but it was clear that the franchise needed fresh blood, someone who could rein in Downey Jr. without stifling his natural energy.  Anyone who's seen Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which should be all of you) knows that Black was exactly the man for the job.  A writer/director who's certainly not afraid of action but also brings a strong focus on character, Black is able to escalate the scale and intensity of the big set pieces without sacrificing the emotional core that makes Tony Stark so compelling.  Black's entry contains no less than three action sequences that are exponentially more exciting and inventively staged than everything in the first two movies combined. The mid-air rescue sequence is a bit goofy and diversionary, but I still love the punch line. And that final battle with 40+ suits fighting on the barge?  Pure joy.  If anything, I wanted even more detail there. Each suit was clearly designed with a specific skill set in mind, so I wish I had the chance to see what made every suit so uniquely badass.  But at the end of the day, seeing Black play with the kind of budget and scale of a successful mega-franchise is enough to fill me with glee. That he's able to work within the confines of a pre-established, highly managed property without losing that essential Shane Black-ness (it's Christmas!) is all the more impressive.

It's also worth noting that the execution of the Mandarin is pretty much perfect, a great head-fake that's simultaneously entertaining and intelligent. In other words, it's the exact opposite of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.  Trevor Slattery, equal parts menace and hilarity, might be my favorite new character.  And let's not forget the incredible music by Brian Tyler, who looks to be Marvel's new go-to guy for scoring these films. It may have taken three films, but they finally managed to give Marvel's marquee character an iconic theme befitting his stature, right up there with Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.  Seriously, I defy you to watch this movie and not walk away humming that riff for the rest of the day.  Throw in the delightful 70's style closing credits...simply magic. 

I'll admit that upon my first viewing of Iron Man 3, the movie felt like a bit of a cruise control victory lap following the success of The Avengers.  I'd grown so used to these movies devoting significant energy to larger world-building that I was thrown to find none of it here.  But upon many, many repeated viewings I've found Iron Man 3 to be a refreshing change of pace from Marvel's near constant efforts to expand the scope of their universe.  Instead we're treated to two hours of strong action and charming character work, making for not just the best Iron Man movie, but one of the best Marvel movies to date.

Title: Iron Man 3
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany, William Sadler, Ty Simpkins
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX (Jordan's)