Friday, August 22, 2014

A MOVIE WORTH WAITING FOR: "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" Is Disturbingly Nihilistic, But Uniquely Presented

Deep dish pizza … southern fried chicken … cheesecake … French fries … T-bone steak ... bacon double cheeseburgers … a stack of melted-butter, rich maple syrup drenched pancakes … what do all these foods have in common? A one-way ticket to a myocardial infarction; a caloric, fat-laden miasma of fat and grease that when consumed in great amounts can make one feel sickeningly nauseous…but oh, does it taste so gooooood going down. 

Come on…you know you want me.



Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is a lot like that.

”Sin City”, the brain child of comic book writer/artist and director Frank Miller, was a groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed combination of 90’s grim-and-gritty chic with the style of pulp magazines and classic film noir; a formula that was successfully translated onto the big screen in 2005 by directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez. With A Dame To Kill For, lightning has struck twice…tenfold. It’s akin to experiencing an unfolding disaster; horrifying to witness much less contemplate, yet too tantalizing to look away.  

The film engenders that feeling because it looks so damn good, more likely due to Rodriguez’ guiding hand then Miller’s (as anyone who’s watched Miller’s solo-directorial effort The Spirit (2008) can attest). If last year’s Machete Kills was Rodriguez’ grindhouse pastiche of gory excess, A Dame To Kill For is his art house love sonnet. Rodriguez’ sensibilities combined with Miller’s overall vision captures the look and feel of the source material, while at the same time rising (in varying degrees) above its conventions. Technology has caught up with their combined vision and the visuals are much more powerfully impressionistic than in the first outing (even more so in 3D). The city itself is the main oppressively omnipresent character; an indifferent god engulfing the denizens of its streets. Nihilistic despair rises from the sewers and permeates the air, while corruption and vice ooze from the pores of every piece of brick, mortar, and metal. It’s a seedy world where hope is not unknown but unwelcome. The “city as Hell metaphor” is a benchmark of many a story, but rarely as prevalent as here.  [Ba]Sin City is its own dark dystopia divorced from the real world, its citizens enmeshed in its seductive embrace with no way out save one.

This place is Disney World by comparison… 

Each scene is meticulously and (dare I say) lovingly rendered (with some, as in the first film, practically lifted from the panels of the comics) as if a visually lyrical painting. This attention to detail is evident from the opening scene, which serves as the synopsis for the entire experience: an act of brutal violence rendered in over-the-top animation, with Mickey Rourke's gravelly voice-over describing the unfolding events, his raspy delivery teetering between sincerity and mockery; a confluence of the disturbing and the comical. It leaves you feeling like you have to take a much needed shower even as you revel in the opportunity to get dirty. 
Oooooo, baby…. 

Like the original, the film is made up of vignettes from the original comics which are only tangentially connected within the film’s framework.  Despite a couple of pacing issues, the stories draw you in even as they balance the tightrope between straight treatment and ludicrousness. The majority of the tales ("Just Another Saturday Night", "A Dame To Kill For," and "The Long, Bad Night," respectively) take place before the events of the first movie; hence why, for example, the character of Marv is such a big presence in this film. Each story follows a particular character: (1) Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a lucky guy looking to make a statement in Sin City by insinuating himself into a card game headed by the villainous, corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Booth) (2) A pre-plastic surgery Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over the reins from Clive Owen) being drawn against his better judgment into protecting his femme fatale ex Ava (a perfectly cast Eva Green); (3) a minor sub-plot involving Detective Mort (Christopher Meloni), a cop who is drawn into the Dwight/Ava dynamic; and last but not least Nancy (Jessica Alba), who is filled with rage, remorse, and regret over Hartigan’s (Bruce Wills) self-sacrificial suicide and desires nothing more than to see Senator Roark dead. The actors clearly throw themselves into their work, even if the characters they portray seem joyless. One of the notable exceptions to this is Booth as Roark.  Having played “Phillip Marlowe, Private Eye” on cable in the 80’s, Booth is no stranger to what is required of a noir villain. He revels in his charismatically cruel character, who wears the City’s dark heart like a comfortable, lived-in leather duster.

Come on…you know you want me. 

If Roark is emblematic of the city’s seedy evil pestilence, then Marv is it’s righteous and vengeful wrath; an idea which is crystallized in this film and makes his fate as documented in the first film even more tragic. It’s been a while since Mickey Rourke got top billing in any film, especially in a film that contains luminaries such as Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Josh Brolin among others, but he certainly earns it as he serves as the lynchpin to all the stories. While his character is the most visually excessive, his bearing is surprisingly the most restrained; a pillar of steely calm in an otherwise outrageously manic word, though he explodes into ferocious violence at the drop of a dime. 

Sadly, with the passing of both Michael Clarke Duncan and Brittany Murphy, the parts of Manute and Shellie necessitated recasting, though of more import is the former.  Dennis Haysbert has the thankless task of stepping into Duncan’s large shoes. Haysbert does better in the role than expected; though he lacks some of Duncan’s presence in both stature and menace, he gives enough to be more than effective in the role even if he does imbue the character with a gentlemanly air the Duncan's interpretation lacked.  


Being a killing machine…that’s Allstate’s stand…Are you in good...oh, wait... 

Brolin’s Dwight is a character all his own, which undermines the character’s connection between the two films but still compelling in it's own right. Pay attention as Christopher Lloyd makes a brief but thoroughly enjoyable cameo as Kroenig, who is imagined as a “Doc Brown” who achieved his degree by way of Gotham City U. Levitt's Johnny is cocky brashness, his buoyant demeanor both compliments and contrasts his environs and makes his particular storyline hit all the right emotional beats.

On the surface, A Dame To Kill For seems to be brutally and degradingly misogynistic. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a subversive subtext extolling of female empowerment, for it’s the women who drive the events of the film (directly or otherwise). As the ostensible dame to kill for, Eva Green is sublime both in visuals (which the film browbeats with as many lovingly rendered nude shots of her as humanly possible*) and in performance; the acting that was derided in Dark Shadows serves her well here, giving her character much needed bite. Rosario Dawson returns as Gail, who’s not given as much to do this time around but gleefully makes the most of it.  Of all the returning players, Bruce Wills as the ghostly Hartigan is the most marked in terms of real-time age. However, his worn and haggard look serves the character well, lending a spectral, heavy gravitas to what amounts to an extended cameo. but who's presence fuels Jessica Alba's Nancy, giving focus to her character's pain and overall wretchedness. She in turns seethes and despairs, transitioning between both sans subtlety.  She's given more to do here than in the last film, and it is her story that drives the film's final arc; one which borrows an element from The Sopranos and, in keeping with this film's tonality, uses it to better effect. 

As a whole, the actors teeter on the verge of parody, but for the most part Rodriguez reins them in just enough to remind the viewer that this is a world of unreality where none of this is to be taken seriously. His judicious yet sparse use of color in a world of literal black-and-white reinforces this sense of fantasy, even as the black-and-white merge into an oppressive, overriding grey. The original score by Rodriguez and collaborator Carl Thiel use the noir hallmarks of brass and woodwinds and ratchet them to the nth degree, further heightening the sense of foreboding. 

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is not just another comic book movie. It’s a film that plays with different opposing motifs and styles, blending them into a fully realized world. There’s no in-between: It’s a film you will either love or hate for it's not a "fun" film in the conventional sense. It is lurid, apprehensive, and morbidly bleak. It is also a vivid, extremely well-crafted and executed piece of modern noir. While the characters are not as well-defined as in the first outing (which is disappointing but expected given the enormity of the cast), the performances are solid. This is a film that must be watched in 3D as it is one of the rare films that deserves the technological treatment (keep a special eye out for the opening credits and a pool scene). It balances macabre hopelessness with wry absurdity.  It’s a film that is a combination of conflicting styles that is not afraid to laugh at itself, making for a cinematic experience that is uniquely it’s own.

*Not that I'm complaining.
**Special thanks to Marjorie Lepowsky of Chatterbox Productions for her thoughts on technological advancement.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

NOSTALGIA ONLY GOES SO FAR: "The Expendables 3" Is Still Enjoyable Despite Being Run Of The Mill [Minor Spoilers]

There's a problem that is inherent with premises based on a gimmick. A gimmick can only go so far. Before 2010, it was practically impossible to conceive of a film that would star a plethora of big screen action heroes from the 80's and 90's; especially given the notorious egos of some (star Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example). Then came the first Expendables, a film that surprised many just by being made in the first place. The second one found the aforementioned 80's action triumvirate engaged in more than just an extended cameo sequence, and added Jean-Claude Van Damme to the mix for what was to have been a career comeback. The gimmick of seeing all these stars together in one blockbuster blowout, with tongue-in-cheek references to actor-specific action tropes, mitigated the need for an engaging story, much less plot. 

But gimmicks wear out fast, which begets a "been there, done that" ennui; which is something that star and primary screenwriter Sylvester Stallone knows better than most. Say what you will about the actor's skill as a thespian, watch his filmography and one would be hard pressed to deny he knows a thing or two about crafting a story. In The Expendables 3, the team is sent to take out yet another enemy to freedom. However, much to Barney Ross' (Stallone) surprise, it turns out to be Col. Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a personal enemy of Ross; one who was thought long dead.  When he takes out one of the core members of the team, Barney comes to the conclusion that the weight of age and obsolescence hangs over his team like a shroud and disbands The Expendables to forced retirement including himself, but not before he settles his score with Stonebanks. To that end, with the help of recruiter Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Ross recruits a whole new team made of members under the age of thirty. However, things do not go as planned. 

One of the more interesting aspects about this film series is it's metatextual commentary on the action film in general, but the ageist aspect of its performers in particular, which have often been played to humorous effect. The normal rule regarding trilogies is that the third film spins the central conceit of the two films that preceded it. Whereas The Expendables and The Expendables 2 were all about showing that the old guard still had what it took to get the action job done, The Expendables 3 postulates their awareness that perhaps their time has run its course, at least in Barney's mind. So the Expendables become "The Replaceables" with younger, capable, tech savvy counterparts. Without giving too much away, it's a given that both generations overcome their animosity towards each other ban together to stop Stonebank's machinations. However, the path to the getting there is pat and disjointed.  An action packed first act leads in to a plodding recruitment second act that meanders and tries to find its footing. It's only when the teams finally blend is when the balls-to-the-walls action fest really begins, and this despite a number of plot holes big enough to shoot a missile through.

Characterization has never really been much of an issue for this series, since the entire premise has been comic bookish in the most basic sense of the term. Yet despite director Patrick Hughes best efforts, this installment suffers from too many characters (some more thinly realized than others) with too little time for their development. All the original Expendables (Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren) return and are their usual, reliable selves. Among the newcomers, the stand outs are former Stallone antagonists Wesley Snipes as "Doctor Death", a maniac ex-member of the original Expendables team, and a manic, looney tunes cartoon come to life Antonio Banderas as a talkative, hyperactive "assassin" who doubles as an anti-aging infomercial guru. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, stiffly walks in and flies a chopper in a manner reminiscent of a scene he's done before but looks bored as hell doing it. On the youngsters side, MMA Ronda Rousey makes an impressive big screen debut, kicking ass as powerfully as her male counterparts.While Kellan Lutz of Twilight and The Legend of Hercules plays "Smilee" as the stereotypical heroic maverick with a heart of gold and ostensible Barney Ross protege.  Mel Gibson relishes his role as the most formidable of The Expendables villains, playing Stonebanks as a mirror universe Martin Riggs. Like most other actors of this franchise, his character's backstory parallels the actor's persona, but used to menacing effect.

In the end, The Expendables 3 is less an actual action movie and more of a string of scenes of a bunch of fan-favorite guys (and girl) getting together to have fun doing what they do best: chew scenery, fire guns, beat the bad guys to submission, blow stuff up, and give pithy comebacks while doing it.  All in all, it's a fun movie...really, what more could you want from an Expendables film?


Sunday, July 27, 2014

A STAR [LORD] IS BORN..."GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY" Is a Gamble That Pays Off With Interest.

Of all the movies in Marvel Studio's current staple, Guardians of the Galaxy was the hardest sell as there was virtually no name or brand recognition with the public at large, and even comics enthusiasts were left with a slight case of head scratching at the idea. As such, this was Marvel's biggest gamble, the one film that had the most probability of being the first major...possibly disastrous...flop of it's impressive cinematic track record since the Iron Man six years ago. 

Given the presentation, Marvel Studios has absolutely nothing to worry about. Guardians of the Galaxy is everything a summer sci-fi popcorn flick should be.

During the lead up to release it's been described as the figurative love child of Star Wars and Firefly and, while there are similarities to both (unsurprising, since much of Marvel's original space opera epics were heavily influenced by the former, even discounting the fact that the company held the comics license for it), triple threat director James Gunn (who serves as director, primary writer, and very minor actor) manages to take those tropes and rework them into something fresh even as it trods familiar territory. 

The story begins in the late 80's when young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) is alien abducted soon after his mother's succumbing to cancer.  Decades later, the grown up Quill (Chris Pratt) is a rakish rouge bounty hunter going by the name "Star Lord" who is on the hunt for an Orb of mysterious origin and power.  When he refuses to give said Orb to his employer/father figure Yondu Udonta the Centaurian (Michael Rooker), Udonta puts a bounty on Quill's head that attracts the likes of Rocket (a cybernetic raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a Tolkien-esque tree named Groot (Vin Diesel, who probably did not have to spend a lot of time rehearsing his lines). Meanwhile, a interstellar Kree religious zealot/despot named Ronin (Lee Pace) sends a "daughter" of Thanos (first seen at the end of Marvel's The Avengers) named Gamora ("Uhura" as Orion Slave Girl Zoe Saldana), a trained assassin of considerable skill, to retrieve the Orb for his own nefarious purpose.  In their mad gamble to retrieve the film's MacGuffin, they come across Drax the (self-proclaimed) Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who loves solely for revenge against Ronin and Thanos for the death of his family.

Why would I check myself out? Is there something wrong with me?
 
While the main story sounds very straightforward, it is surprisingly and entertainingly not. The film has a strong ironic bent, yet it is perhaps the most sincerely unironic modern sci fi film in terms of it's overall themes of family and righteous action for its own sake.  One of the most amazing things about the film it is that it's so bright! Even at it's darkness there's a pastiche of mesmerizing color. On the flip side, the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps (Think Green Lantern Corps with cooler outfits), is the inevitable result of Epcot and Tomorrowland over-running the state of Florida. No matter how you feel about Disney's theme parks, it's an impressive sight. The soundtrack is a combination of the compositions of Tyler Bates and an 60's/70's rock mix tape, encapsulating the tone of the irreverent space epic. The film's CGI is spectacular, even if the 3D presentation does reveal its weak spots as per usual. The visual style is a combination of retro and modern.  Again, influences of previous sci fi films are in evidence, such as Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and so forth. But here they're combined to provide something that, if not quite new, is at least fresh. It is a visual feast and one worthy of the 3D presentation. In fact, the movie's visuals blend with the selected rock anthems of the 60's and 70's to create an aesthetic evocative of films like Heavy Metal (1981), some shots taking their cues from the works of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. Speaking further on the score, Tyler Bates possibly cribs certain stylistic motifs from Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World (both scored by Brian Tyler). Given the former film's secular tone and the latter's mythical bent, Bates' efforts here fit this movie's sardonic yet operatic bent while at the same time complimenting the Billboard Top 40 soundtrack.
 
But like any film, it is the performances that either buoy or sink a production. As the Captain Kirk/Han Solo amalgam Peter Quill, Chris Pratt proves he'll never have to be relegated to playing just "the friend" again. He's rakishly lovable; a straight version of Spaceball's Lone Star, presenting an earnest, forthright performance even as his character tries to establish himself as an interstellar bad ass. Zoe Saldana's Gamora is a more than capable warrior, with a soft center belied by the tough exterior. The biggest casting gambles in this production were Rocket and Groot.  To say that the two of them steal the movie is an understatement. There's no "cute and cuddly" here.  Rocket is perhaps the most capable of the misfit Guardians, and its presentation in character, both in performance and CGI, gives credence to it. As the main antagonist Ronin, Lee Pace's performance is noteworthy. He makes himself a force to be reckoned with, and one wishes that it were he that Thor had to battle against in Thor: The Dark World.  In what amounts to an extended CGI cameo, Josh Brolin lays to rest any fears about a Texan-drawled Thanos, who emanates menace in a small scene that leaves you wanting more. The most surprising acting standouts in the film, however, are Bautista and Rooker. Drax's character has no grasp of metaphor, which Bautista uses to great comedic effect, proving he's more versatile than one would have believed. As Yondu (in the film the head of the bounty hunters known as The Ravagers but in the comics was a founding member of the Guardians) Rooker is reminiscent of Jason Robard's Cheyenne from 1968's Once Upon A Time In The West, if that character were played by a cross between Woody Harrelson, Mr. T., and Wesley Snipes in blueface. A noted character actor, Rooker has never seemed to have as much fun in character as he seems to have in this one; which is especially evident in a scene that takes place in an alien pawn shop. The story is engaging and tightly paced (even despite a couple of scene drags involving John C. Reilly as a Nova Corps member), which strikes an appropriate balance between tongue-in-cheekiness and sincerity.
 
I pity the fool who messes with my hemp and my blade.
 
 
In short, if you have any trepidation about seeing this film, don't.  Guardians of the Galaxy serves as the apex of this summer's action fantasy output. It works despite (and perhaps because of) it's lack of cultural identity. Without the baggage that comes from preconceived notions, it surpasses all expectation (or lack thereof); a cinematic rockabilly, rollickin' good time. Reportedly, Marvel Studios has already announced Guardians of the Galaxy: War of Kings for a July 28, 2017 release date.

In my opinion, that date cannot come soon enough. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

SOMBER DAWNING: Despite Some Minor Flaws, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” Is A Marvel To Behold.

It’s rare when a fantasy-based film reaches a level of such sophisticated nuance it is on par with more reality based fare.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves that rarified standard despite some very minor missteps.
 
Ten years have passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).  In the interim, the human race is on the verge of extinction due to the Simian Flu (presented with brilliant yet chilling succinctness at the film’s opening). A relatively small colony of survivors living in the nature overrun ruins of San Francisco, led by survivalists Malcom (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), try to eke out a meager existence. Meanwhile, across the bay, a thriving simian colony exists, still led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising the role), and his “lieutenants” Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). When a search party from San Francisco comes across the sons of Ceasar and Rocket (Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw)), a misunderstanding occurs which sets of a chain of events which lead down the path to the inevitable conclusion that was presented in the original Planet of the Apes.
 
It has been said that the best science fiction has something to say; that it is allegorical to the prevailing concerns and issues that are taking place in real life. Where Dawn differs from most is that it is not heavy handed in terms of what is being critiqued (no doubt in part due to that one of the opposing sides is not human in the literal sense). Current foreign politics and affairs, LGBT rights issues, gun control, reactionary jingoism, generational disenfranchisement, tragedy engendered by fearful misunderstanding…all of these are represented…or maybe none of them.  The beauty of this is that this film boils down to the primal essence of all of these concerns…the need to survive; a need both sides share, but only a handful are forward thinking enough to understand that survival may only come from mutual cooperation…and that those few may not be enough to turn the tide.
 
For the first time, Andy Serkis is given top billing in a live-action film as a CGI character; and boy, does he earn it!  The motion captured, CGI rendered apes are a wonder to behold (though the CGI is far from perfect at times, especially when rendered in 3D). The film takes a similar route of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) by devoting much of its first act to represent the simian society.  Unlike the latter film, there’s no human in evidence and, in effect, no analogue for the viewer to identify with.  Serkis, in effect, has the Herculean task of making a CGI character identifiable, if not sympathetic. His performance in Rise is child’s play to what he does so beautifully here.  Cesar is now a family man with a sick companion Cornelia (Judy Greer, whose character’s name implies an ancestral connection between Cesar and Dr. Cornelius of the original Apes) and a rebellious teenager (Thurston). These family issues, and the leadership of the tribe, weigh heavy on Cesar’s shoulders and Serkis conveys it powerfully. Praise in this regard cannot be effusive enough.  He is the literal lynchpin of this film and if he did not work, the whole thing would fall apart.  Just for the sheer scope of the responsibility the actor bears in keeping this film together, Serkis should get an Oscar nomination. On the flip (human) side, Malcolm similarly shares Cesar’s situation.  His own son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is just as disconnected from his father in his own way, and initially unwilling to accept his father’s new lover, the medically capable Ellie (Keri Russell). He tries to keep the peace between the humans and the apes, but his partner Dreyfus fear and mistrust of the apes is a practically insurmountable stumbling block.
 
The only problem here is that this film’s 3D presentation is more three dimensional than some of the performances, which causes an odd disconnect between story and viewer at times to the extent that it quixotically lengthens the two hour screen time. In fact, Oldman is an actor of some respect and renown, yet the character he plays could essentially be played by anyone. There’s nothing here for him to really sink his thespian chops into. However, The Walking Dead’s Kirk Acevedo does stand out as a “racist” character that one would love to hate under normal circumstances; however the character’s motivations are so relatable as to make him borderline sympathetic (more on that in a minute). As does his simian opposite number, Koba (who you will recall as horrifically scarred ape who pushed Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) off the San Francisco Bridge), who bears an irrational hatred for humans; but, given the events of the first film, is also understandable. The journey of father/son reconnection is handled well in the end by both Thurston and McPhee, but for most of the film they are so annoying you’re left with the sense of wanting to slap them aside the head (which, given that they’re playing self-involved teenagers, is precisely the point). However, there are practically too many characters for even an accomplished director like Matt Reeves (Felicity) to juggle around and make three-dimensional.
 
The film is lavishly shot, with the set designers and cinematographers working together to create a believably rendered post-apocalyptic world. The City of San Francisco looks to have been assimilated by the practically tropical woodland that the apes inhabit. Michael Giacchino’s score evoking a sense of foreboding unease even as it emulates his Star Trek efforts at times; an unease that is also engendered by the tone of the story by scriptwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback.
 
Ostensibly, there are two characters that can be characterized as the story’s antagonists, but the real villains are “fear” and “mistrust”.  There are no true villains in the fictional sense.  That sets this film apart from others even as it undermines it. The inevitable battle between humans and apes is a sight to behold (after all, who doesn’t want to see apes riding on horseback armed to the teeth with deadly ordinance?). However, the geek power of the scene is balanced by the tragedy that underlies it. What would be an “Aw, YEAH!” moment in any other film is instead a moment of somber tragedy.  There is no joy to be found in the slaughter of innocents on both sides just to satisfy the jingoistic agenda of a very select few. In the end, this film is also about differences; or rather, the existence of similarity within difference.
 
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a standard, feel good summer blockbuster. It’s a film that takes risks, and does so with laudable, beautiful presentation.  While it does have some yawn inducing (i.e. boring) spots, it is a triumph in filmmaking, building on the world presented in Rise. For all its fantasy, it’s rooted in very real problems. Don’t expect any cheers or a pat resolution. This film serves as a sobering indictment of the consequences of allowing fear, antipathy, and hate to rule the day.

Friday, June 27, 2014

BABES, BOOMS, BOOZE, ‘BOTS…BOREDOM. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” Edges The Franchise Closer To It.

Within the first ten minutes of Michael Bay’s Transfomers: Age of Extinction, an ancillary character says something to the effect of “sequels and reboots are all a bunch of crap”; a metatextually line of acknowledgement that, in Michael Bay’s hands, can either be taken as a challenge to belie the statement or as serve a “f*** you” to the audience as he’s about to fling it at you like a pissed off caged monkey. The film, and I term it loosely, is more latter than former.
 
Taking place five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), the Transformers, both Autobot and Deceptacon, are deemed unwanted aliens and are systematically hunted down by a government agency run by rogue CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) with the help of an alien robotic force led by an entity called “Lockdown” (Mark Ryan), whose mission is to find the gone-missing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). In the meantime, a down-on-his-luck, single father inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), discovers Prime's remains and finds himself, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her race car boyfriend Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor) drawn into events that involve…
 
…remember that analogy about monkeys above? Well, that’s kind of what the plot feels like. After the relatively poor performance of the previous installment (in comparison to the first two that preceded it), there was a need to up the ante on this one.  While Ehren Kruger is credited with writing the film, the narrative is so disjointed it barely holds itself together as such.  It’s as if someone took a monkey, gave it poo with plot ideas written on them, flung it against the wall, and saw what stuck which, given what’s packed in the overlong running time, seems like everything. That’s the whole tragedy in this film.
 
One of the major rules of storytelling (never introduce an element if it is not intended to be used, a rule especially espoused by Alfred Hitchcock) is violated many times. There are some really good ideas, one of which never before explored in the entirety of the “Transformer” “mythology”, and those ideas are built up. However, there is never a payoff on any of them. There is more a pastiche of “wouldn’t this be cool if…” than an actual cohesive, linear storyline.  Now, directing actors have never been Bay’s strong suit; but at least in his previous films his characters had a sense, however thin, of consistency. In Extinction, character motivations change at a moment’s notice to a simian head scratching degree. Mark Wahlberg would be a welcome addition to the franchise solely for the fact that he’s NOT Shia LeBeouf. However, he is certainly the most enthusiastic and sympathetic member of any Transformers film. His character is the relatable anchor for the human point of reference; despite being a gifted tinker, his inventions never work and he is due to lose his home. In that role, he works. The only other human performance worthy of note is John Turturro stand-in Stanley Tucci as a blatant Steve Jobs rip-off who is out to destroy the Transformers for his own purposes.  His character is completely disjointed, but at least his over-the-top histrionics make for entertaining fare. The rest of the cast are nothing more than the usual Michael Bay stock cut outs characters (the "hot girl", the "rebel boyfriend", the "homicidal muscle", etc.) that do their jobs adequately for the purposes of what passes for a film. The CGI is perhaps the best this series has seen, despite some weaknesses in translation to 3D.  However, I can honestly say that for the first time in a Transformers movie I could identify which robot was fighting whom with each ‘bot having a look as distinctive as their personality.
 
However, this is a Michael Bay party, and he’s brought his usual testosterone-jacked bag of tricks:  Ascending point-of-view car exits, babes in short shorts that would make Catherine Bach blush, sssslllloooooowwww-moooooooo, hardware (military and otherwise), booze, Steve Jablonsky’s staccato military rhythms, product placement galore, and the boom, Boom, BOOM! But much like the lens flare in a J.J. Abrams Star Trek production, the elements are so overdone here Extinction comes across as a parody of a Michael Bay production; some moments so obviously pandering that they are groan inducing caricature. The movie could have been significantly improved if Bay hadn’t seemingly fired his editor as the action sequences go so long that by the time the “money shots” are arrived at, one is either past caring or just relieved that it’s finally over. More and more is thrown into the ramped up battle scenes, with John Goodman’s “Hound”, Ken Watanabe’s “Drift”, John DiMaggio’s “Crosshairs” and Robert Foxworth’s “Ratchet” reminding us that this movie is ostensibly about robots in disguise is really a study in machismo excess (everybody’s running around chasing a “seed”…yeeeeaaaah….)…not that there’s anything wrong with that if it weren’t so disjointedly blatant. As far as I’m concerned, so long as Peter Cullen continues to voice Optimus the character itself can do no wrong. But even actor and character are slaves to the story. By the time Optimus gets to his own “money shot” of riding the Dinobot “Grimlock”, among others, the movie has gone on for so long the viewer is left too confused about the shenanigans to care. Situations, motivations, and locations all jump around to such a leap frog extent that it feels like someone tried to condense all six Star Wars films into a two hour plus running time. When one says that an episode of the original Transformers (1984) cartoon was better executed in story and presentation than a big-budgeted, big screen adaptation, there’s a problem.
 
All in all, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a poorly designed robot; some parts work, others are mismatched and grind like nails on chalkboard. The sad fact is it really is like visiting monkeys at the zoo.  The cute monkey will fling the poo at you with disdain, but the audience will still shell out the money to watch not realizing they’re essentially paying for the privilege of being shat on.

Monday, June 9, 2014

MALEFICENT IS LESS THAN MAGNIFICENT: Angelina Jolie's Performance Saves The Film From Crashing Down Upon Its Revisionist Foundations [MINOR SPOILERS]


Put succinctly, Maleficent is Disney’s Man of Steel.
 
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
 
The most curious aspect about the release of Disney’s live action feature Maleficent, directed by first time director Robert Stromberg and starring Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones with supporting assist by Angelina Jolie, is the missed opportunity of rereleasing 1959’s Sleeping Beauty on DVD. Upon viewing the movie, it is crystal clear why the action did not take place.  Clearly, Disney has jumped upon the revisionist bandwagon to such an extent that it has employed that most insulting and lazy of fictional tropes: Everything you know is WRONG.
 
Given the Maleficent’s character design (as well as that of the castle) and the fact the film carries the distinction of being Disney, there’s a reasonable inference that the film was to tell the story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The studio subverts its own 1959 animated presentation to such an extent it is barely recognizable, turning one of the  most (if not the  most) deliciously, unrepentant villains in Disney’s Pantheon of Evil into a vengeful but sympathetic anti-heroine; one barely recognizable from the source material.  Now, the 1959 film is by no means 100% faithful to its source material either (with permutations too long to summarize here), but this is a unique take in that Disney is revising its own "history"; interesting, if not satisfying.
 
In this retelling, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy (pre-teen); Ella Purnell (teen); Angelina Jolie (adult)) is reimagined as a good fairy that protects the kingdom known as “The Moors”, a land that is populated by fantastical, supernatural beings that abuts a human kingdom in an uneasy truce. When young Maleficent is called upon to see to a thieving human boy Stefan (Michael Higgins (pre-teen); Jackson Bews (Teen); Sharlto Copley (adult)) who has trespassed into the “The Moors”, they strike up an unlikely friendship that becomes something more. Upon adulthood, Copley betrays her in his quest to become king. Violated and disillusioned, Maleficent becomes vengeful, hard, and aloof.  Years later, when the married King Stefan presents his daughter Aurora, the uninvited Maleficent arrives to invoke the infamous sleeping curse, albeit in circumstances altered from the original Disney film.
 
Most everyone knows the story of “Sleeping Beauty” (at least, the Disney cinematic version).  But here, this is less a fairy tale for adults and more of a study of cultural inversion. There has been a trend since the early 90s in pop culture media to have the hero become the villain and vice versa.  Both Wicked and Oz: The Great and Powerful show the Wicked Witch of the West in a more sympathetic light. In the world of comics, both Doctor Octopus and Lex Luthor have supplanted their respective super-heroic foes by becoming effective heroes in their own right. Both the Dark Lords of the night and the Sith have become tragic pawns in the name of love, with Van Helsing and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively, represented as unsympathetic antagonists. General Zod isn’t “bad”, he was just, to borrow from Lady Gaga, born that way, etc. Regardless, the above-mentioned characters retain their now-somewhat-muted villainy. Maleficent goes one step further.  She herself is completely reimagined to such an extent that she goes from “villain” to “violated victim” and “anti-hero”, bringing a logical (and in the wake of the recent events in Santa Barbara, California, a decidedly uncomfortable) justification for her actions, and it changes the story into something other than “Sleeping Beauty”. The names remain the same, but the characters and motivations are so different as to render them practically unrecognizable; that it could have conceivably been its own story without affiliation to the source story. It further pushes a theme introduced in Disney’s latest animated release, Frozen, regarding the notion that a “one true love” does not necessarily mean romantic love. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day with this film regarding the advancement of hidden agendas, given how some of the characterizations play out.
 
The question remains as to whether or not Maleficent is a good film on its own merits. The answer is, like so many other recent films, it's a lustrous moving painting that reveals its flaws upon further scrutiny; a mixed bag as a film proper.  The story penned by no less than seven credited screenwriters, which gives credence to the old adage of “too many cooks.” For example, a few events that take place within the story, including the climax, requires the viewer to fill in a few blanks for themselves from inference without providing sufficient pre-established cues to justify them (an example involves a Deux Ex Machina in the climax).
 
It's not hyperbole to say that without Angelina Jolie there would be no live-action Maleficent. While her physical disposition makes her the perfect actress, it is her innate intelligence and bearing that make it work. As the pre-betrayed Malificent she is serviceable. It's when the character goes to the dark side that she allows herself to gleefully relish the role with dry, witty, cheeky acerbity. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and it's only near the end where she raids Michelle Pffeiffer's fetish closet does her performance hit a sour note. In truth, she is really the only reason to watch this film; she manages to make the incongruous motivations of the character plausibly work. It's certainly not for the slipshod special effects. Half the time they're a work of picturesque artistry.  Others, the digital effects are so cheesily obvious (even in 2D) it's a wonder how the Disney studio allowed its name to be attached to the project; most egregiously with the three fairy godmothers, all of whom look like Gollum's little sisters. Instead of magical, the CGI renders them grotesquely.
 
Elle Fanning is sufficiently beguiling as Aurora, the unwitting pawn in the film's game of vengeance. She's acts as quasi-foil for the titular character and manages to build a credible relationship with her. It’s their revamped relationship that becomes the focal point of the film. While the onus of the burden of the film’s carriage falls on Jolie’s shoulders, Fanning assists in carrying the weight quite nicely.
 
Sharito Coplay, as King Stefan, manages to lose all the crazy charm he displayed in The A-Team for just plain crazy. His performance is disjointedly interesting, if bordering on one-note, as it’s left for the viewer (again, via inference) if his descent into madness is due to conscience, fear, or both. His performance is inconsistent and perhaps that was the intent. However, like the story beats, the relationship dynamics are filled in by the viewer via inference. Unfortunately, this compromises the dynamics between protagonist and antagonist so that when they finally, inevitably meet in the climax, the result is not as satisfying as it should have been.
 
The less said about Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple as the ersatz “Fairy Godmothers”, the better.
 
Special note must be made to actor Sam Riley who plays the anamorphic Diaval, who provides a much needed balance and reason to the film. Given all the subtextual misogyny the majority of the male characters portray in this film, he provides the one example that, gosh darn it, not all guys are bad (but then, it’s an easily obviated argument given that Diaval is a crow transformed into a man, not vice versa, and thus a magical creature, not a true man). Actor Brenton Thwaites is just window dressing as the ineffectual Prince Phillip.
 
James Newton Howard's score tries to be a mix of Disney Classic and vintage Williams and it works for the film, even if there isn't one particular melody which stands out.
 
The film will undoubtedly be a hit and does have a few things going for it. It’s a lush production with a strong feminist foundation and does provide positive messages regarding true love and strength of character. Yet it would have been more risky, daring, and interesting to portray Maleficent as the character in the original Sleeping Beauty. However, here Disney plays it safe, leading to a transmogrification of character that defangs Maleficent both in film and in person. In trying to explain the magic, the producers have done nothing but totally undermine it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” WILL LEAVE YOU ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT.

If you were to ask someone “what would you get if you crossed Groundhog Day (1993) with Mecha Anime[?]”, one of the most unlikely responses you’re liable to get is “a kick-ass Tom Cruise vehicle”; yet that is exactly what you get with Edge of Tomorrow.
 
Based on the Hiroshi Sakurzzaka novel ”All You Need Is Kill”, the story takes place, in what is implied through the use of real life cable news anchor cameos, to be the near future.  A race of aliens, known as “Mimics” (due to their ability to copy and anticipate military battle strategies), have overrun and decimated most of Europe.  However, despite their seeming invincibility, a series of successes effectuated by Special Forces solider Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) bolster the war effort to the extent that a final assault to eradicate the threat once and for all is planned.  Self-aggrandizing, cowardly advertising executive Major William Cage (Cruise) is ordered by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to film the battle at the front lines. When he tries to charm his way out of said duty, he is forcefully subdued and sent to the front lines as an infantryman and falsely identified as a deserter, much to the delight of J-Squad infantry unit leader Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, whose presence, along with the set-up of J-Squad, heavily recalls Aliens (1986)). Terrified and way out-of-depth his depth, Cage is killed within five minutes upon arrival at the battlefront; but not before kills a rare, large blue-alien known as an “Alpha”.  Upon his death, he “resets” back to the present day. The character is well named as he is “caged” in a Ragnarokian time loop as time resets itself upon his death(s).*  It’s not until he saves Vrataski’s life that Cage begins to unravel the mystery of his condition and use his newfound power to aid in the war effort.
 
The advance trailers for the film depicted a bleak dystopian future, filled with the oppressive, hopeless desolation that has become the hallmark of modern sci-fi actioners. However, what sets this film apart is that it balances the proceedings with a healthy sense of humor due in no small part to Doug Liman’s direction and Cruise, who’s given the opportunity to poke fun at his own acting clich├ęs (a scene where he repeatedly flashes his pearly-white chompers is especially amusing) and makes the humorous most of the film’s “videogame reset” conceit (thus preventing the trope from becoming tiresome). Eventually, he defaults into his “dependable action-hero” persona, but he is effective in this playing-against-type turn.  In any event, the film shows that Cruise still has a few more “action hero” years left in him.
 
The film’s true star, however, is Emily Blunt, the resident "Valkyrie" who makes “The Angel of Verdun” a compelling, complex character; she is both dangerous and vulnerable all at once, and Blunt and Cruise share a great give-and-take dynamic. Credit must be given to Cruise in the fact that he knows when to dominate a scene and when to let his costar shine, which Blunt does. In their respective roles, both Gleeson and Paxton are stubbornly gruff, but Paxton is (in a rare case) especially entertaining; almost stealing every scene he appears in. 
 
Both the visual effects and cinematography are top notch; a gritty realism permeates each frame despite the fantastical nature of the elements.  Like last year’s Pacific Rim, it is an anime come to life; however, one that is slightly more convincing and, dare I say, compelling. The aliens are disquieting, tentacled monsters reminiscent of the robots in the Matrix films, and the battle suits are sufficiently convincing. Christopher Beck’s score is by turns pulse pounding and insidious, effectively highlighting both the action and the suspense.
 
The script, by Dante Harper (uncredited), Christopher McQuarrie, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is surprisingly clever, catching the viewer unawares with certain revelations via dialogue throughout the film.  If there’s any weakness, it’s in the third act, where the lighting and editing make for a more muted visual experience.  Some might find the ending a bit pat but, given the bleakness in most summer blockbusters to date, it’s rather refreshing.
 
A clever script, heavy action, humor, and solid performances blend to make Edge of Tomorrow better than it should be. It is a highly enjoyable film that carries dramatic heft but does not take itself too seriously, and one that merits big screen viewing. You’ll LIVE through the action, you won’t DIE of boredom, and you’ll want REPEAT viewing.
 
 *Special thanks to Ian Morris for the analogical assist.