Monday, July 28, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Of the original trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the least fondly remembered.  It’s a prequel which departs somewhat radically in tone and in cast from its two companions, and it contains a few very ill-advised creative decisions, about which director Steven Spielberg has said that the best thing to come out of the film was meeting his wife Kate Capshaw.  But on revisiting, there’s more about Temple of Doom to enjoy than not, though it’s still far from the other two in my eyes.

A year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) careens off the heels of one adventure and into an Indian village where the children and a sacred stone have been abducted by the sinister forces of Pankot Palace.  His compatriots, lounge singer Willie Scott (Capshaw) and pint-sized Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), follow Indy into the eponymous Temple of Doom, where they face the brainwashed hordes who obey the devilish Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).

Let’s say the obvious – the film is culturally insensitive to the max, if not unspeakably racist.  It deals heavily in the “white savior” archetypal narrative without challenging that trope in the least, to the point where we literally have a British cavalry arriving just in the knick of time.  Now, it’s possible that Spielberg is playing with the old adventure serial formula from the 1920s and 30s – as suggested by some cliffhangery moments like the inflatable raft parachute over a cliff – and it does give him some of the ookier moments of the movie like the chilled monkey brains dessert, but the fact that the film seems at times virulently demeaning of India is a bit troubling.

The other major issue with the film is, perhaps surprisingly, Kate Capshaw’s performance.  After Karen Allen’s deft and empowering female lead in Raiders, Capshaw’s Willie Scott is a colossal step backwards.  She’s fantastic at screaming her lungs out and standing around rather uselessly, and if that’s the character the filmmakers really wanted to create, kudos to them.  But the result is something akin to the worst excesses of the “Bond girl” stereotype over in the James Bond franchise (to which, to be fair, both Spielberg and George Lucas claim Indiana Jones is partially indebted).  She is largely unwatchable and impossible to sympathize with, and I can’t help but wish Indy and the filmmakers had left her behind on this adventure.

Now for the good news:  I actually liked the film much better than I thought I would.  I’ve been going back and rewatching the films in order, and usually when I do this I skip over Temple of Doom in order to get to the vastly superior (and probably perfect) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  This time, however, I’m glad I stopped off in 1984, because the film does a number of things very right.  For one, the character of Indiana Jones is very well-developed in this film, following a compelling arc from an obsession with “fortune and glory” to a more sobered approach to archaeology and sacred artifacts.  Ford does great work as the protagonist, who’s still heaps of fun to watch.

And for all the cultural insensitivity at play in the film, it does give a very well-crafted tone to the film.  For any of the viewer’s qualms about Temple of Doom, it more than lives up to its name (and the PG-13 rating it inspired).  This original trilogy does seem to be a series of three masterpieces in setting a mood: the first, a sense of high-stakes adventure amid danger; the third, a rollicking romp through the feel-best action comedies.  Here, the tone is nearly relentless dread amid dingy and red-tinted sets; the darkness of the film pays off the character’s arc in a dénouement in which (spoilers?) all balance is restored and good triumphs.  In this sense, Temple of Doom uses its own gloom to say something important about morality.

That, and it’s an enjoyable ride along the way.  In terms of dark second installments in a trilogy, it’s not The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a film that, I think, deserves revisiting from older fans who brushed it off in their youth because it wasn’t as lighthearted as its companion films.  Surprisingly, the best part of the film on this most recent viewing wasn’t the infectious fun of Short Round (who remains a scene-stealer of the highest order and gets one of the best moments when he tells Indy, “You’re my best friend”) – it was the fact that Temple of Doom isn’t a creative failure.  It’s a much smarter film than it seems, and I’m surprising myself by how much I liked it.  I went in expecting to review it very much in the “Yes, but...” vein, but instead I’m coming away with a resounding thumbs-up.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is rated PG.  It’s probably the most intense of the four films, dealing with a human-sacrificing Thuggee cult who is fond of removing their victims’ hearts and then dropping them into a pit of lava.  There’s an aborted seduction scene in which “primitive sexual practices” are discussed, and Indy gets in one S-bomb.  Other scenes of violence – fistfights, shootings, stabbings, and being eaten by alligators – play out with either fake-looking or no blood.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday at the Movies - July 21, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, since we haven’t mentioned him since April, Batman!

Son of Batman (2014) – Batman’s back, and this time he’s a daddy.  Jason O’Mara returns from his debut in Justice League: War for his first meeting with his son Damian (Stuart Allan).  O’Mara’s Batman is not as gruff as the quintessential Kevin Conroy, but he’s somewhere between Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford – a fine heir to the throne, for my money.  (Conroy will be back in Assault on Arkham.)  More inspired casting comes in the form of Giancarlo Esposito as Ra’s al Ghul and Morena Baccarin as his daughter Talia.  Though the film doesn’t use these characters as much as I would have liked, their inclusion leads me to believe that DC is searching out new top talent – and if there’s one thing we know about the al Ghuls, it’s their penchant for resurrection.  At the end of the day, it’s a Batman film, and so for that reason I’m inclined to review it positively; I don’t begrudge Warner Bros. the seventy-some minutes of my life, and I even tend to give movies like this a bit of leeway.  But my honest assessment is that Son of Batman does strip its source material – Grant Morrison’s Batman and Son – of some of its teeth.  The original plot had Damian introduced amid his mother’s bid for “a new kind of terror,” while here Talia is reduced to a damsel in distress in favor of a focus on antagonist Deathstroke – who, between this, Arrow, and a slew of video games, may be a bit overplayed at this point.  (An eleventh-hour twist putting Talia in the mastermind’s seat would have been welcome.)  The dynamic between Batman and Damian, however, is note-perfect from the original comics, capturing the fun sense of the latest major addition, his spirited and surly son, to the Batman mythos.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

The kindest thing I can say about Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction is that it reminded me very much of the fireworks show I saw on the Fourth of July this year.  In both cases, I attended out of a mix of curiosity, a mild sense of obligation, and a persistent feeling in the back of my mind that I was going to be disappointed.  And in both cases, I got exactly what I expected.

For that reason, I feel less inclined to berate Transformers: Age of Extinction than my readers might be expecting.  I knew precisely what to expect, and my expectations were pretty low, allowing me to take the fourth Transformers film for what it really is:  the cinematic equivalent of a fireworks show, all bombast and no bravura.  So I won’t even do the usual plot summary, because the plot can be summarized almost exclusively by naming actors and shouting onomatopoeias in all capital letters.

Fortunately, some very talented actors – Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, and Stanley Tucci among them – are cashing what ought to have been very easy paychecks, and they’re more than capable of engaging an audience just on ethos alone.  They’re reliable and stable performers, and to be perfectly honest they, together with the budget, are what separate this film from a straight-to-DVD release.  It’s not particularly innovative, remaining in a very real sense indistinguishable from the three films that preceded it.  All one should expect from a Transformers film at this point is a series of very big, very loud, and slightly dumb explosions – which this Transformers delivers, and how.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, however, it’s absurdly long, baggy and bloated.  The words “There are too many robots” should not be an issue with a Transformers film, and yet there are far too many characters who come and go for reasons that can only be described as “plot.”  There are at least five factions of Transformers in the film, most of which are devoid of personality (and the ones with characterizations are viciously broad caricatures, like the samurai Transformer voiced by Ken Watanabe and the gun-toting Transformer voiced by John Goodman).  Only some of them are visually interesting – especially the dinosaur Transformers – but there’s little need for them in a film that very much resembles its main characters – lifeless, bulky, and clunky.

Sidebar:  one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is when a film doesn’t properly introduce characters, such that I forget or never learn character names.  I think I can name about three Transformers in a cast of dozens.

Characterization aside, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a brutally tone-deaf feature, likely hard of hearing as a result of the amplified volume from the first three films.  The film barely has two settings – loud and very loud – and the pacing is astonishingly uneven while still managing to remain perfectly predictable.  There seem to be two distinct plots going on here – the American government’s pursuit of the Autobots and one corporation’s attempt to make their own Transformers – and either one of them would have made a decent enough film.  But since they’re thrown together into a film that is far more interested in explosions than in ideas, they’re reduced to what Mark Kermode has called “the loudest common denominator.”  Now, I realize that asking for ideas in a Transformers movie is like asking for a soufflé in a McDonalds, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the barest pretense of an idea.

What’s more, the film manages to be staggering insensitive, throwing around racial stereotypes to make the cast of Deadwood blush (for example, every Asian character is a master of some form of martial arts).  More patently offensive, Transformers boasts a neverending slew of quintessentially leery camera angles from Bay in which young women in tight/short clothing bend over things in slow-motion while the camera practically salivates over their lithe bodies.  It’s an eyeroll of the highest order to begin with, because Bay seems to be one of the only filmmakers outside of pornography not to realize that it’s the 21st century and we’re all trying to be a bit more enlightened than that, but what makes it worse is that the film attempts to lecture us about sexualizing young women while doing exactly that.  There’s a loathsome moment where Wahlberg asks his daughter to dress more conservatively, which almost sounds like Bay reprimanding himself, but the camera is actually poised behind actress Nicola Peltz while apparently attempting to film directly up the leg of her shorts.

Aside from the perverse leering, aside from the casual racism, aside from the problems of pacing and length, and aside from the thin characterizations, every once in a while Transformers: Age of Extinction does manage to be a little bit of fun.  There are a few decent eyeball kicks, and Stanley Tucci is a real treat as always (it’s just too bad the film doesn’t actually know what to do with him).  But it is ultimately as mindless and as ephemeral as a fireworks show, but a good deal louder and very nearly unbearably longer.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo.”  There are more robots punching robots and exploding than you could possibly imagine, and the film is replete with sexual objectification of female characters in tight clothing and accompanying light misogyny (“She looks hot”).  There’s one particularly well-timed F-bomb from Tucci and several other profanities of the scatological variety.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now the eighth “Apes film,” the second film in the third franchise since 1968.  I list off the pedigree because I am feeling a slight sense of ape fatigue.  Though the film is tracking in the low 90s on Rotten Tomatoes, my take on it is a little less enthusiastic – there’s nothing the film does incorrectly, but I do have a distinct sense of having seen all this before.

A decade after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, apes and humans live in isolation from each other.  The apes, led by Caesar (motion-captured by Andy Serkis), want to live in peace in a semi-civilized state; the humans, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), want to reclaim a hydroelectric dam in the middle of ape territory.  While Malcolm (Jason Clarke) tries to broker a peace with the apes, Caesar faces a dissenting faction from within, led by his advisor Koba.

Rather than go toward the fantastical apocalypses provided by the Heston and Burton eras, Dawn continues in the realistic vein of its predecessor, with a marked focus on the verisimilitude of the special effects.  Assessing solely these visual effects, Dawn is a triumph; between the movements and the digitized facial expressions, it’s heroically easy to forget that you’re not watching real monkeys.  There’s rumbling about Serkis being up for an Oscar for his lead performance – well, I’m not sure about that, mostly because it’s hard for me to tell what’s Serkis and what’s an animator, but I do think he’s courting a well-deserved “Special Technical Achievement” award.

There’s a lot of other moving pieces in the film that are also successful, though they’re far outshined by the technical fakery.  Oldman and Clarke are compelling enough, though Oldman’s role is roughly equivalent to Bryan Cranston’s in Godzilla – he’s there for a plot mechanism, and you’ll probably leave the theater itching for more screen time from an actor as talented as he is.  But the slightly undercooked quality of the human characters really emphasizes the fact that this is first and foremost the primates’ show.

When it comes to the story, though, I’m not convinced that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is particularly visionary.  It is certainly more subtle than Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (an obvious inspiration) in that it isn’t reductionist in its approach to protagonist/antagonist relationships.  But once it does establish Koba and Dreyfus as antagonists of a sort, the film proceeds in a fairly predictable manner.  What ultimately emerges is a very unsurprising allegory about cooperation in spite of differences, open-mindedness on the subject of diversity.  Forgive me for saying, I’ve seen this movie several times already.

With a very different movie, I’d have spent a long time on the matter of the familiar plot, but in the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this is less a misstep and more of a non-step.  The filmmakers don’t strike any false notes here; rather, the melody is quite familiar (no pun intended, though Michael Giacchino’s score does recall early Apes soundtracks).  The visual effects are the standout feature – the apes are strikingly rendered, the sequences in which they attack are appropriately terrifying, and the internecine struggles feel astoundingly human.  It’s not the second coming of science fiction, but it is a well-told iteration of a classic tale.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.”  There is some amount of blood seen, mostly during fights between apes.  Fight scenes between humans and apes proceed with more gunfire but with less blood; some of the scenes of attacking apes may be frightening for younger viewers.  The film also includes one F-bomb and several scatological S-bombs.

Pop back here on Thursday when The Cinema King tackles Transformers: Age of Extinction!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

The obvious pun in any review of Tomorrow Never Dies would be, “Well, gosh, why won’t it just die?”  And for a decades-old franchise that’s up to eighteen official entries, that might seem appropriate.  Tomorrow Never Dies is not a terminally ill film, though it does suffer from a very bad case of head-scratching villainy and a distinct identity crisis.

After a troubling crisis between British and Chinese military forces in the Pacific, M (Judi Dench) dispatches James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to investigate media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), who published key details in his newspaper before they’d been made official.  Suspecting Carver’s involvement, Bond reunites with his former flame, Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) before teaming up with Chinese spy Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) to stop Carver’s plot from triggering World War III.

As Brosnan’s second outing as James Bond, there’s much about Tomorrow Never Dies that does work quite well, and it’s largely due to the persona the franchise had previously assumed in Goldeneye.  It’s serious, but not lethally so; it’s fun, but not in the quantities we’d come to expect from the slapsticky Roger Moore vehicles.  Brosnan is still a more than capable Bond, equally at home in intense action sequences and in moments of levity, including my personal favorite “banter with Q” sequence.  And I very much appreciate the way Brosnan gives Bond a sense of backstory, without resorting to the heavy-handed “mention his late wife” trope the series usually employs.

The bigger problem with the film is that its central antagonist is a megalomaniac of the highest order whose plot centers on his willingness to endanger the entire world for media ratings.  It’s a viciously shortsighted plot, a scorched-earth approach that could truly eradicate the audience he’s conspiring to acquire.  Now there’s a bit of cleanup at the very end of the film to imply that it’s all smoke and mirrors, a “wag the dog” conspiracy, but for the most part Elliot Carver is a brutally cartoonish villain in the midst of an otherwise quite serious spy film.  Worse, the absurd scope of his plot makes everyone else look like loons for taking it seriously.  I’m not sure if it’s Pryce’s fault for overplaying the part or scripter Bruce Feirstein’s for undercooking the role, but it comes off like a less well-thought-out version of The Spy Who Loved Me (which also featured a submarine-eating aquatic headquarters out to spark global conflict).

The other thing about Tomorrow Never Dies – and this may be the thing that gets my goat the most whenever a film gets it wrong – is that it feels like two very distinct pieces.  At first, there’s a corporate espionage plot with war in the backdrop, but then the film shifts quite quickly into international conspiracy and terrorism.  Both of these could make very compelling Bond films, but they’re stitched together somewhat haphazardly, even marked by the fact that Bond has to change continents for no reason than just to get to the next act.  Once each of these halves is underway, it’s truly compelling stuff, but the seam in the middle is all too visible.

I think Tomorrow Never Dies had been my first Bond film as a child, and I came to it ready to recapture those rose-colored morsels of nostalgia, but I think I realize I was a somewhat uncritical child.  There is, to be sure, a number of very nice pieces in the film.  There’s a fantastic update on the “sinister henchman” Bond trope in the form of Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr. Kaufman, a torturer and forensics expert, and I don’t even mind that he only gets the one set piece.  It’s moments like that, and like the Lois & Clark-esque banter Teri Hatcher gets with Bond, her former lover, that suggest a much more compelling Bond film than is actually present.  Heck, even the remote-controlled BMW, as outlandish as the premise sounds, is played with such fervent earnest that it works far better than it ought to.  And let's give composer David Arnold a good heap of credit; his score is essentially a modern John Barry, in that he integrates the classic Bond theme with the film's main themes to give us some truly rousing music that works just as well outside the context of the film.

Having said that, if we’re willing to swallow the BMW, how outlandish must the villain’s plot be if it’s too implausible for this film?  Taken in macro, Tomorrow Never Dies just doesn’t work, but on a micro scale there’s enough enjoyable material to make this better than at least half of the Bond films I’ve already reviewed.

Tomorrow Never Dies is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of action violence, sexuality and innuendo.”  As per usual, there is a lot of shooting, exploding, and fisticuffs.  There’s not a lot of blood, but some of the violence is disquieting in the sense that it’s all very close and visible.  As usual, Bond beds several women, though we never see anything other than bare backs; as for the innuendo, TND is one of the racier screenplays chock full of groan-worthy puns.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of The World Is Not Enough (1999) on August 7, 2014!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Monday at the Movies - June 30, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, we tackle two truly despicable movies.

Despicable Me (2010) – Hardcore Disney snobs like myself often miss out on good animated films from other studios simply as a matter of personal prejudice, and Despicable Me is certainly among those nearly-missed opportunities.  I say “good” and not “great” not because Despicable Me is a disappointment – it isn’t – but it never fully accesses the transcendent quality of, say, an Up or a Toy Story 3.  Instead of striving for exceptionalism, Despicable Me is quite satisfied with telling a rather familiar story; here, sinister supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) finds his heart warming when he involves three adorable orphans in his scheme to steal a shrink ray and, by extension, the moon.  It is a story, as Beauty and the Beast would have it, as old as time, but the filmmakers work to tell a solid rendition of that story.  What they bring to the table – and what I say is ultimately the film’s greatest success – is a cuteness factor that goes up to eleven.  It’s funny that Gru is somewhat sidelined (at least, for this reviewer) in his own movie; I, and I suspect other audience members as well, was more captivated by the pygmy-like yellow jabbering Minions and their setpiece antics.  The scene-stealer, though, is the youngest of the orphans, Agnes (Elsie Fisher), who has a way with both youthful naïveté (mistaking a Cheeto for a caterpillar) and boisterous overexaggeration (“It’s so fluffy, I’m gonna die!”).  Perhaps the reason these two contingents steal center stage is because the main antagonist, voiced by Jason Segel, is neither interesting nor tolerable; consequently, we want to see Gru succeed not on his merits, but rather so we can be shut of Vector and his irksome antics.  Fortunately, the film compensates with an “aww”-inspiring supporting cast.

Despicable Me 2 (2013) – As much as I liked the first film for what it was, I enjoyed the sequel even more because it rectifies the first film’s major sin and continues to spotlight Agnes and the Minions.  Carell is back as Gru, this time contracted by the Anti-Villain League to find a villain who’s stolen a MacGuffin; Gru is partnered with an affable newbie, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), while beginning to suspect Mexican restaurateur Eduardo Perez (Benjamin Bratt) of being the former villain El Macho.  By giving Gru a more compelling plotline and a more engaging cast of immediately supporting characters, the film gives Carell more interesting material, which subsequently sharpens his game.  Despicable Me 2, still directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, is acutely aware of what worked in the first film – namely, Agnes and the Minions – and pulls off a remarkably difficult feat:  it’s a sequel with restraint.  Rather than pelt us with overdoses of essentially the same jokes, Coffin & Renaud amplify without deafening.  There are more Minions, yes, but they’re still funny because of the non sequitur nature of their nattering and flair for costuming (personal favorite: “French Maid Minion”).  Ditto for Agnes, who’s still soul-crushingly cute, but now for different reasons than before.  All told, Despicable Me 2 feels more organic, less storytelling-by-numbers than its predecessor, which makes me optimistic about the two forthcoming entries in the franchise.  These aren’t genre-bending films, nor are they tremendously innovative, but don’t mistake their unsophistication for drivel.  Despicable Me 2 is plenty of fun, with a strong additive of cuteness – a solid middle-of-the-road animated film without lofty ambitions but with instead a keen earnestness.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week for the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Chef (2014)

As much as I love a good big-budget popcorn summer movie, I have the sense that a lot of smaller films are lost amid the explosion-heavy hype surrounding the tentpole franchises and blockbuster features.  Case in point – Chef flew very low under the radar, but those who find it are in for a treat.

Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) faces a midlife crisis after a social media meltdown against a mean-spirited food critic (Oliver Platt).  On the advice of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Casper seeks true happiness by opening a food truck with his son and his sous chef (John Leguizamo) and embarking on a road trip.

That is, essentially, opening shot to closing shot, a complete synopsis of the film, but it doesn’t seem like a spoiler, and not just because the trailers have given away as much.  Chef feels very much like a film that proceeds along a clear path from the beginning, without a need to try to surprise the audience or pull one over on it.  Instead, Favreau – who also wrote and directed – clearly wants to make a very straightforward film with a very simple message.

For me, knowing that Favreau is wearing every creative hat in the film, it seems like a very authorially guided project, Favreau’s own statement about himself.  What’s interesting to me is the way that Chef reads like a treatise on why Favreau isn’t directing Iron Man movies anymore; like Favreau, Casper attained fame quickly for his indie work before settling into a critically derided routine with “the man,” embodied here by an overbearing Dustin Hoffman who demands sameness from Casper’s menu.  Instead of staying with the lovely Scarlett Johansson (in Chef, a maître d’ seduced by Casper’s prowess in the kitchen), Casper/Favreau breaks off and does his own smaller thing, finding greater success and fulfillment than ever before.

Whether or not Chef is a manifesto on why Favreau has left big-budget Hollywood (for now), Chef is exceptionally entertaining, feel-good in the least derisive sense of the word.  I can honestly say that I had an embarrassingly wide smile on my face for much of the film, even between the punchlines.  That’s because Chef plays like a passion project, which makes the food truck plotline feel very metaphorical – one senses that Chef is Favreau’s food truck.  In fact, it doesn’t seem accidental that the man who sells Casper the truck is played by Robert Downey Jr., in one of the film’s funniest scenes; without the RDJ-sponsored success of Iron Man, we might not have a Chef.

This is all very beneath the surface, and I don’t think the moviegoing public at large are meant to focus on the metaphorical content the way I have.  But it does emphasize the degree to which Favreau’s heart is in the film, an emotional investment that carries over to the audience, who can’t help but fall in love with Casper, whether he’s playing sad sack or genuinely content.  While Favreau has that everyman charisma that one would need for this role, he surrounds himself with a fantastically talented supporting cast of scene stealers who all possess a deft comedic timing that sells lines like “You’re trending, bro.”

Chef is a classic story told very well, without the burden of overwhelming ambition or franchised expectations.  It’s both narratively and literally a back-to-basics piece for Favreau, a kind of (appropriately enough) palate cleanser for him and for the audience.  With an emphasis on simplicity and substance, Chef is a sweet dish wholly recommended for anyone seeking a bit of lighthearted fun at the box office this summer.

Chef is rated R for “language, including some suggestive references.”  There are a surprising number of F-bombs (at least, surprising based on the trailer), though it feels organic for the characters.  There are verbal fisticuffs and an occasional crude remark about romantic partnerships.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

I won’t bury the lead on this one:  Maleficent is not an unwatchable film, but it is colossally disappointing.

And I won’t do the usual plot summary bit here because the plot of the film is essentially a “sympathy for the devil” take on Disney’s 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty, starring Angelina Jolie as the eponymous fairy queen who’s betrayed by the kingdom of men before she curses the young princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).  While this sounds like a prime opportunity to reinvent the story, promising us the version of the fairy tale we hadn’t heard before, Maleficent very much amounts to a pulled punch.

I’ll start with the good news, and it’s probably something you’ve already heard because nearly every film critic agrees:  Jolie is perfectly cast as Maleficent; she does a phenomenal job delighting in her own wickedness, she walks with the grace of a fairy queen, and her delivery captures flawlessly the intonations Eleanor Audley brought to the original.  And there’s a curious moment near the middle of the film where Maleficent restages the curse scene from the original Sleeping Beauty animated film.  I say curious because it is unequivocally one of the best moments in the entire film, and it leads me to wonder why Disney bothered with all the trappings of a retelling and didn’t just opt for a straight remake. 

I hate to be cynical, but frankly this film is aimed at the grungy Hot Topic crowd, who are probably going to love it.  Maleficent is part of Disney’s recent push to reinvent classic films, as with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the upcoming Kenneth Branagh Cinderella (March 2015), but it’s not as successful as Wonderland was because it never commits to a core idea – or rather, it commits to too many.  Angelina Jolie is so good that her character deserves a better vehicle, one more certain of what it wanted to do with the character.  Either Disney should have given us the true between-the-scenes take on what Maleficent was up to, or it should have given us a truly sympathetic portrait of Maleficent the misunderstood.  Instead, the film tries to give us both, and the result is a film that never fully invests to itself.

It’s a cop-out to boot – either you want us to sympathize with the character or you don’t (or, if you’re Breaking Bad, spend six years exploring that gray area).  The film’s conclusion that Maleficent was both a hero and a villain is, truthfully, an evasion.  You do see the hand of uncredited rewriter Paul Dini here; he famously brought pathos to the backstories of many Batman villains in the early 1990s animated series, though the fact that only Linda Woolverton gets screenwriting credit suggests why Disney’s Maleficent can’t do in 97 minutes what Batman’s “Heart of Ice” did in 20.  (I’m referring, of course, to the definitive rebranding of Mr. Freeze as a tragic villain out to avenge his cryo-frozen wife.)

Honestly, I’m not sure if the bigger problem with the film is a studio that wants to have its fairy cake and eat it too, or if first-time director Robert Stromberg is juggling too much at once.  The film does have a very appealing look, and the shots are very interesting.  The special effects look good, especially the climactic dragon battle.  Interestingly, the film also participates in Disney’s recent trend of rejecting “love at first sight” and backing away from “love conquers all.”  With Frozen and Brave, Maleficent makes three films where the studio offers a self-reflexive critique of its early, easier boy-meets-girl narratives.  The difference is, however, that by now we’ve already seen this new spin, and the film doesn’t really break any new ground on that front.

Maybe I’m just being excessively vitriolic because I haven’t written a truly bad review in a while, and the bile’s built up.  I will say that I’m not sorry to have seen it.  I’m a fantastic Disney shill and will watch just about anything the studio puts out, and although it may not sound like it I truly do not begrudge Maleficent the ninety-plus minutes I spent watching it.  It’s fine for what it is, but it’s impossible to watch the movie and not see snippets of a much grander, more ambitious project.  But, as the film states explicitly, ambition is supposed to be bad, and so the result is a somewhat neutered update on a fairy tale which, this very update proves, didn’t need updating in the first place – at least, not the kind of halfhearted updating we’ve been given.

Maleficent is rated PG for “sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images.”  The scene after Maleficent’s wings are taken is disturbing – many are reading it as a rape metaphor – and some blood is seen on her back.  As for frightening images, there’s nothing scarier than what a conventional Disney film offers; there is some swordfighting, and iron is seen to burn fairies in a few scenes.

Monday, June 16, 2014

22 Jump Street (2014)

We were all caught off guard by 21 Jump Street, which led every cynical filmgoer to scoff at the idea of rebooting the silly premise of a late-80s TV show best known for giving us Johnny Depp.  But retrospectively, these being the same directors behind The Lego Movie, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised.  I don’t think 22 Jump Street is as good as its predecessor, in part because Phil Lord and Christopher Miller don’t quite – and can’t, in fact – surprise us the way they did last time, though it is enough fun and better than your average sequel.

In a bit of meta-commentary, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are reassigned across the street to 22 Jump to “do the same exact thing” – track down a new designer drug – albeit in a college setting this time.  That is essentially the whole plot; Ice Cube returns with a slightly larger role as Captain Dickson, and Peter Stormare plays drug supplier Ghost with his reliable brand of comic menace.

First of all, I will say that 22 Jump Street is very funny.  It’s not as funny as the first one, but it is funny enough.  In fact, interestingly enough, had the first film not been so good, I think 22 Jump Street might have come off better; that is, it suffers only by comparison, which is paradoxically both unfair and (in this case) inevitable.

It’s a comparison that’s made all the more apparent by the film’s central conceit of “do the exact same thing” – and indeed, it is very similar to the first film despite the apparent self-consciousness at play.  This is a very funny gag at first, particularly in a scene in which Nick Offerman’s police chief stands in for studio executives, expressing puzzlement that the first film/case worked as well as it did before sending Hill & Tatum back to the grind.  I say “at first,” however, because this is a clever gimmick that runs out of steam about halfway through the film, after which the writers continue to introduce it with diminishing wit.  I see a lot of film critics falling over themselves to praise this move, but it certainly grows tiresome by the one-hour mark.

Fortunately, 22 Jump Street isn’t predicated solely on satirizing the sequel.  Instead, it wisely remembers that the big success coming out of 21 Jump was the surprise chemistry between Hill and Tatum, and the two continue to play off each other well.  Tatum in particular gives the break-out performance of the film, continuing the simpleton (self-)caricature from the first film but giving Jenko moments of clarity and self-awareness.  His are some of the funniest scenes in the film, particularly his well-timed delayed reaction to a key revelation, though Ice Cube is still the key scene stealer with his boisterous delivery and clear disdain for the protagonists.

There is, ultimately, not much else to say about 22 Jump Street.  It’s not better than the first one, which is, to be fair, a rather tough act to follow.  It is, however, better than most comedy sequels, which often merely replicate the success of the original.  But I don’t think the difference between 22 Jump and sequels like The Hangover: Part II is simply down to self-awareness.  22 Jump Street is actually quite funny in its own right, even divorced from its predecessor.  It only becomes something less by comparison, and while I’m still not sure if it’s fair to judge a movie “by comparison” I do know for a fact that I had enough fun with 22 Jump that I can recommend it, especially for fans of the original.

22 Jump Street is rated R for “language throughout, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity and some violence.”  F-bombs abound, as does talk about “hooking up” and the like.  The premise of the film revolves around a new mystery drug, which causes characters to “trip” in a very cartoony sequence.  There is gunplay, explosions, and some blood, but I don’t recall any nudity (nor does IMDb’s Parents Guide).

Come back on Thursday for a look at Disney’s latest, Maleficent!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

The Fault in Our Stars is the latest film adaptation of a wildly popular young adult novel, and while that all may sound tiresome, Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s text thankfully departs from what you’re expecting both by avoiding the impulse to franchise and by crafting itself eloquently and movingly.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), whose thyroid cancer has settled into her lungs, falls in love with fellow support group attendee Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a one-legged survivor of osteosarcoma.  The two fall in love “the way you fall asleep – slowly, then all at once” and bond over Hazel’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction.  Soon, they travel with Hazel’s mother (Laura Dern) to Amsterdam to meet the author, Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe).

What most people will have heard about the film is that it is an unabashed tearjerker.  It is, in fact, the weepiest film since About Time.  The target audience is, apparently, young adults, but don’t be deceived by where the publishing house had slotted the book; the filmmakers are emotional snipers who take aim at the heartstrings of anyone in the audience.  And based on the screening I saw, I suspect that this is one of those “not a dry eye in the house” films.

The Fault in Our Stars is a film about teenagers with cancer, and in a sense a teary audience is a bit like fish in a barrel.  What sets Fault apart from the Lifetime movie-of-the-week version of this story is that the emotions the film engenders really do feel earned.  This is something to which I’ve given a lot of thought – why does a film like this work so well when we’re (or at least, I am) immediately aware that we’re about to be manipulated emotionally?  Part of this, I think, has to do with the way the film frames itself; Hazel tells us repeatedly that hers is the only accurate story about cancer (An Imperial Affliction aside), which sets us on her side quite instantaneously, especially because the entire film is told from her perspective.

The bigger reason that Fault works, ultimately, is that it’s very well told.  Rather than rely on the “kids with cancer” crutch, Boone gives us a pair of very engaging star-crossed lovers in Woodley and Elgort.  Woodley’s gotten a fair bit of press for headlining the Divergent series (though critics seemed less enamored of it), but I do hope that this right here is a star-making performance (gosh, how many “star” puns can I come up with?) because Woodley is for a book reader a definitive Hazel Grace.  She captures all the snarky charm Green gave her, but she’s able to switch on the audience’s waterworks with a well-placed choke in her voice.

To be honest, I did have my reservations about Elgort.  I’d never seen him before, and Augustus Waters is a very difficult character to get just right.  His dialogue can come off as stilted, though this is entirely the point, but Elgort sells lines like “I reject that out of hand” by giving us an Augustus perfectly in line with Hazel’s assessment of him at a picnic near the film’s end.  He’s charming, and the audience falls in love with him when Hazel does.

The nice treat in the film is Willem Dafoe’s turn as the disaffected writer for whom Hazel and Augustus share a fondness.  (He’s also a welcome inclusion for parents or significant others who feel dragged to the film, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Now, Hazel and Augustus travel halfway across the world to meet him in what feels very much like the center of the film, though it’s a scene that doesn’t behave exactly like you would expect.  I’ll try not to spoil things – though I suspect that the kind of people who care about spoilers have already read the book – but putting this scene squarely in the middle of the narrative tells us something important about what I think Green’s endgame is.  Ultimately, I think the film speaks to Louis CK’s line about death; he says, “Lots of things happen after you die—they just don’t involve you.”  Van Houten is one of those things; Laura Dern’s role as the mother is another.  Now, again, this isn’t spoiling anything, but the film is such a heavy meditation on death (“oblivion is inevitable”) that I think it offers something equally poignant about what is left behind – about living in the face of death.

The obvious counter to the threat of death is the promise of memory, and the film is able to end optimistically because of that note.  I think that audiences too will remember this film in a way that we don’t necessarily remember bigger, bloatier franchised young-adult books-to-films like Twilight or The Hunger Games.  Self-contained and infinitely compassionate, The Fault in Our Stars is a fine change of pace from the big blockbuster films of the summer, so pack a tissue or two.

Okay?

The Fault in Our Stars is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language.”  As a movie about teens with cancer, the feels are at eleven, and these “thematic elements” will make you cry.  There’s heavy contemplation about death and the scars cancer leaves behind; the film has a very cheer-worthy F-bomb.  There are two make-out scenes, one played for laughs and the other a very intimate encounter in which clothing is removed but nothing is exposed.