Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Any reader who isn’t a stranger around these parts knows that I’m an enormous Martin Scorsese fan, and I’m of the opinion that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of our finest actors.  So believe me when I say that The Wolf of Wall Street, the pair’s fifth collaboration in more than a decade, is undoubtedly their best work since 2006’s The Departed (and maybe even since Goodfellas – your mileage may vary).

DiCaprio stars as the titular Wolf, Jordan Belfort, who uses his Wall Street savvy to start up his own barely legal brokerage.  Amid the debauchery and depravity of the excesses at Stratton Oakmont, Belfort attracts the attention of the FBI while juggling the demands of his second wife Naomi (newcomer Margot Robbie) and his partner Donnie (Jonah Hill).

With Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese returns to the true-crime biopic genre he perfected with Goodfellas and Casino; indeed, Wolf could be seen as the third in a thematic trilogy of rise-and-fall narratives ripped from the headlines, and it certainly deserves that place of prominence in Scorsese’s repertoire.  Wolf is compelling and engaging, a prime example of a filmmaker not content to rest on his laurels; instead, he reminds us just how good he can be.  And for a film that never feels like it’s three hours long, never elicits so much as a bathroom break or a glance at a watch, Wolf is one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen all year.

As far as engrossing goes, let’s hope that this is the year that finally nets DiCaprio his Best Actor trophy at the Oscars (though he’ll have some steep competition from Christian Bale in American Hustle).  DiCaprio’s been turning in consistent work for the better part of a decade, and it’s high-time the Academy stops treating him like a bridesmaid and recognizes the total immersion DiCaprio undergoes into this character.  Aside from the verisimilitude of DiCaprio’s impression of Belfort’s physicality and mannerisms, he proves himself deft with a range of behaviors, from slapstick humor to deadpan disgust, from swaggering braggadocio to a whole range of addictions.  Belfort is such a multilayered character, and the film offers DiCaprio so many different opportunities to flesh out facets of this fascinating figure.

Yet with so many tonal oscillations, The Wolf of Wall Street never feels confused or inconsistent.  While some reviewers are bemoaning the film’s indulgent excesses, I have to think that’s part of the point; Scorsese is so effective at recreating Belfort’s world that he manages to trick us into thinking he’s not on our side.  And just like in Goodfellas, we’d be remiss if we didn’t think there was at least something seductive about Belfort’s lifestyle.  Whether it’s the money, the sex, or the feeling of invincibility, we’re meant to understand in some way – and perhaps even empathize with – Belfort’s decisions.

And Wolf of Wall Street plays with so many of the great Scorsese themes that it deserves high marks as another fascinating iteration of a great director’s most significant statements – the perils of venality, the inevitability of self-destruction, the coincidental slip-up.  In fact, one might even lump Wolf of Wall Street in with the greatest of Greek tragedy – we have our protagonist cursed with a fatal flaw (as with most Scorsese characters, it’s ambition) that becomes the instrument of his own implosion.  But if that’s too highfalutin a comparison for you, just remember Henry Hill’s closing monologue from Goodfellas about how the road through your dreams ends in being a schnook, eating egg noodles with ketchup.

In an era where one-percenters are the popular scapegoat, it’s refreshing to see a film that addresses the issue without heavy-handed moralizing about the evils of capitalism.  Instead, Scorsese presents the subject on its own terms, with an invigorating honesty that asks the audience to draw its own inescapable conclusions.  It’s a master class in respect and rewards for the audience, anchored by one of the year’s best performances.

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R “for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.”  Man, is this movie wildly inappropriate.  We’ve got a bevy of naked men and women on parade (sometimes literally), more drug abuse than you know what to do with, an estimated 500 F-bombs, and a few mild fisticuffs.

Monday, December 23, 2013

American Hustle (2013)

Last year David O. Russell snuck in at the tail end of the calendar with Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy that reinstilled my belief in the genre; two years earlier, he’d caught my eye with The Fighter.  And with American Hustle, Russell takes the things that worked best in those movies – namely the remarkable acting talent on display – and mashes them together for a thoroughly enjoyable Oscar contender.

Based loosely on a true story – “Some of this actually happened,” an opening title card boasts – American Hustle gives us con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale in another total body transformation) and his lover/partner Sydney “Edith” Prosser (Amy Adams) as they are forced into a federal corruption investigation led by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  As the investigation bears unexpected fruit with Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) in the crosshairs, Irving’s reckless wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) puts her husband in jeopardy while trying to keep her marriage safe.

I almost don’t need to say much about the cast; they’re all exceptionally solid choices, the best performers from Russell’s two previous films under one roof.  As the lead (and hopefully a Best Actor candidate), Bale is almost unrecognizable were it not for his remarkable talent, and Adams demonstrates herself a perfect foil for him, continuing to break out of that “too cute for words” mode into which she might have been typecast after Enchanted.  Renner and Cooper are reliably compelling, and Lawrence continues to hold onto that “most talented young actress” title with a powerhouse performance as the spirited Rosalyn.  All handle the naturalistic dialogue very well, with improvisational quirks and touches that give the film a lived-in feel.  We come to know these people very well, thanks to the life given by the cast.

Even better than these five thrown into the same pot – plus all the supporting roles, including Louis CK as Cooper’s boss and a delightful uncredited cameo by a real legend – is the sum of the parts.  American Hustle is at once blissfully engaging and wildly unpredictable.  I don’t want to say it’s something we’ve never seen before; indeed, for many reasons it feels very much like an update on Scorsese’s Goodfellas.  But American Hustle manages to feel quite fresh, playing fast and loose with the historical facts (happily for those who know the story and those who don’t) in order to create an elaborately twisty narrative that takes its characters in surprising and entertaining directions.

All the while, Russell keeps us guessing by refusing to spoonfeed us character motivation, even with the presence of voiceover narration.  Rather than spell out plot beats and character traits, the voiceover instead fills us in on the personalities of the characters and, more importantly, the moments when we know they’re lying to themselves.  The narrative of the film is highly concerned with questions of honesty and deception, and Russell wisely plays about in it without handing us easy moral judgments.  The number of double- and triple-crosses are quite successful on an aesthetic level and satisfying on an interpretive one because we’re never expecting them.  Of course, in a movie about deception, we’ll have characters deceiving each other, but Russell manages to avoid the clichéd “gotcha” beats and instead continually sucker-punches the audience with another new twist introduced with graceful subtlety (as when we learn a key character actually can speak Arabic or when Rosalyn lets slip once or twice).

American Hustle is a movie that will leave its audience reeling, first from the sheer volume of thespianic talent on display and then from the intricate and enthralling plot structure which Russell uses to say insightful things about the problem of honesty and self-deceit.  The original title of the film was American Bulls—t, a title which would have been deliciously ironic – there’s no worse comparison to make with this film than a comparison to excrement.  American Hustle is the exact opposite – delightfully fun, solid gold.

American Hustle is rated R “for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.”  The characters use the F-word quite a lot, a few adulterous affairs occur on-screen (with maybe a possible flicker of female nudity in one), and there’s a death-by-gunshot and a few minor fistfights.  Aside from the language, this one is really close to a PG-13.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday at the Movies - December 16, 2013

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, no creative witty banter before we jump into our review...

Disclosure (1994) – I first “discovered” Michael Douglas in Don’t Say a Word, a taut thriller which colored the way I see him; Douglas is, I contend, at his best when he’s playing an everyman with his back against the wall (exception: Gordon Gekko in Wall Street).  And in Disclosure, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, Michael Douglas gets to do just that – and boy, does he shine.  Douglas becomes embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal after his new boss and former flame Demi Moore puts the moves on him.  Don’t forget, it’s a Crichton story, so there’s something else going on too, which I won’t spoil; part of the fun of the movie is piecing together the intricate plot being sprung on Douglas’s character.  The film is padded out with solid supporting roles; Donald Sutherland is smarmy as ever as the company owner, and reference comedian Dennis Miller is a witty treat as a snarky techie, while Roma Maffia (you know her as anesthesiologist Liz Cruz from Nip/Tuck) steals the show as the spirited attorney defending Douglas against the charges.  But the real treats come from watching Douglas go from simmer to sizzle as the deck gets stacked against him, as his professional and personal lives are destabilized by the machine forming to take him down.  Moore is a worthy adversary, smug and overconfident in her sexuality, but it’s undeniably Michael Douglas’s show as he proves once more that he’s not the guy to mess with.

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

Monday, December 9, 2013

Frozen (2013)

Proving that I’ll probably never outgrow Disney movies, I’ll confess right off the bat that I thoroughly enjoyed Frozen – but not out of mere nostalgia for a childhood nearly twenty years gone.  Frozen manages to blend the classic Disney moviegoing experience with a very innovative revisionist take on the whole princess fairy tale genre, succeeding at both where other studios would struggle with only one.

After her magical ice powers accidentally injure her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) shutters the kingdom until her 21st birthday.  On coronation day, however, when the palace doors are opened, Anna meets love-at-first-sight Prince Hans and is immediately engaged to him until her sister’s subjects exile Elsa out of fear of her powers.  As the kingdom falls into an unflinching winter, Anna goes in search of her sister with the help of ice vendor Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and enchanted snowman Olaf (Josh Gad).

Frozen is a clear update of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” and if the synopsis sounds unoriginal it’s because I’ve taken some pains to limit my summary to the broadest details.  In fact, Frozen contains a number of inversions on where the classic Disney formula might take that general plot.  For instance, the issue of “true love” comes up several times, only for the narrative to take a quick turn away from cliché and move in the direction of something more creative; when Anna and Hans sing about the all-encompassing joy of finding your soulmate, it’s acceptably saccharine in the fairy tale kind of way, but when the peppy musical number is abruptly followed by a quick marriage proposal, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are up to something smarter.  We know – though the characters don’t – that true love takes a little more work.

I won’t spoil where the film lands on the issue of love, but suffice it to say that Frozen offers several models of love with varying degrees of truthiness before the story is done.  I will give the crew a big round of applause for, without spoiling, taking the film in a number of unexpected and fresh directions, even offering me things I’ve never seen in a Disney movie before (the sophisticated approach to love being one of the foremost).  And when you get an entire audience to gasp in surprise at a clever plot twist, Disney or not, you’ve accomplished something spectacular.

The marketing on this film has been, to my eyes, a little vague, focusing more on ambiance than on the actual plot.  Wisely so, I think, both because the plot is too fresh to be previewed and because the film looks astonishingly gorgeous.  Where its predecessor Tangled animated the heck out of Rapunzel’s hair, Frozen presents several tableaus that can only be translated as bragging rights; here, Disney presents itself the undisputed leader when it comes to animating ice.  The various snow drifts, ice palaces, and frost giants all glint and move like embodied snow ought to behave, to say nothing about the perfected-to-a-tee “house style” of Disney’s computer-animated fairy tales.  Don’t underestimate the value of consistency, which helps audiences settle into the film without too much laborious plot instruction; it’s not hard to imagine Frozen in the same universe as Brave or Tangled (and keep your eyes peeled for a Rapunzel/Flynn cameo).

The other curious move the advertising has taken is emphasizing the role of Olaf the snowman and his reindeer buddy Sven.  While these teaser vignettes weren’t especially compelling and played like a bad “funny animals” skit from a lesser movie studio (even giving me pause about seeing Frozen), I can safely say that’s a wholly inaccurate representation of the film.  Not only are Olaf and Sven far from the focus of the film, they’re actually quite engaging when stripped of the need to appeal to a target audience.  As members of the cast, Olaf and Sven are essentially Frozen’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a cartoon Vladimir and Estragon who are good for a plethora of laughs both physical and verbal.  Even Olaf, with the potential to descend into irritating yet obligatory comic relief, hits the quirky derpy spots without grating on our nerves.

And at the center of Frozen is an immensely compelling and vigorously original story about family, love, obligation, and difference.  The voice cast are exceptional, but the visual direction even more so.  I think someday we’ll look back on the present moment as a kind of second golden age for digital animation – Toy Story heralding the first – and I predict that Frozen will take its place in that canon, both for its breathtaking animation and as that movie to which you can point when people jeer that Disney gives its viewers unrealistic expectations about love.  Frozen, I have no doubt, will thaw the hearts of even Disney’s iciest objectors.

Frozen is rated PG “for some action and mild rude humor.”  Both action and humor are quite tame, mostly slapsticky and oriented more toward “kisses are yucky” than actual inappropriate-ness on the affectionate spectrum.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

There’s a recurring gag in Monty Python skits where Graham Chapman interrupts as “The Colonel,” who always intercedes when he feels that the skit has become “far too silly.”  While there’s no Chapman cameo in For Your Eyes Only, one gets the feeling that The Colonel’s refrain was bandied about in the wake of Moonraker, resulting in a Bond film that takes itself much more seriously, even if the end product is somewhat forgettable.

After the pre-credits disposal of a villain who for legal reasons (and in spite of the Nehru suit, traction collar, and white cat) can’t be named Blofeld, James Bond (Roger Moore) travels across Eastern Europe to Greece in order to locate a missing MacGuffin – here, it’s a missile guidance control system or whatnot.  Bond becomes entangled in a smuggling rivalry between Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) and Milos Columbo (Topol), each of whom claims the other is Bond’s target; at the same time, Bond allies himself with Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), out to avenge the death of her parents.

By way of opening remarks, let me applaud the filmmakers – particularly director John Glen, on his first outing as a director – for moving Bond in a more serious direction.  For the past few months, I’ve contended that there is a solid James Bond lurking somewhere inside Roger Moore, but it’s often buried beneath bland chicanery and an overdose of camp.  We get to see some of that “solid Bond” come out in For Your Eyes Only, but at the same time it seems that much of the Bond humor has been stripped away from this one.  There are numerous moments begging for a Bond quip, deaths of henchmen that go unremarked.  (Later, we’ll see Daniel Craig find a nice middle ground with his dry sardonic black humor.)

So while this Bond is a conscious refutation of its campy precursors, that distancing comes at the cost of the overall Bond vibe; For Your Eyes Only feels like James Bond has been dropped into a different film franchise altogether, in which he’s playing a kind of guest role.  I’m not saying Bond doesn’t get enough screen time; he’s omnipresent as always, but he seems like a silent observer to a lot of the film, even taking a backseat at times to Melina Havelock’s revenge plot.  It’s a good thing Carole Bouquet holds her own in the film, proving capable in action sequences and in close-ups of simmering vengeance.  The chemistry, though, is never really there; she and Bond feel perpetually in each other’s way until they end up in bed together.

The honest truth?  That’s about all I remember from this movie.  As someone who prides himself on a particularly strong memory, For Your Eyes Only is like a complete blur for me, even after only a few days.  While the idea of a more serious Bond is a fantastic one, the execution on this is just passable; the film meets the bare minimum standard for gravitas by stripping away the fun but without replacing it with something compelling.  The bait and switch with the villain is a real eye-roller; Bond simply takes the word of the second “suspect” that the first is the real baddie, who admits with what amounts to a casual shrug, a “Yeah, you got me,” and a perfunctory mustache twirl.  And (spoilers) Julian Glover is terribly disappointing as Kristatos; where his Nazi sympathizer Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was memorably sinister, here his chief act of villainy seems to be his relentless pursuit of a sexual liaison with an underage figure skater.

James Bond deserves better.  Heck, this film deserves better than to fade into the foggy recesses of my mind.  There’s enough that could have worked had the movie been... well, had the movie been a different movie altogether.  But in spite of it all, For Your Eyes Only is not offensively bad, which is more than I can say for Moonraker.  Moonraker was at least an unwatchable train wreck that descended into madcap incredulity with whiplash-inducing speed before our very eyes; For Your Eyes Only merely plods forward until it ends, bizarrely enough, with a Margaret Thatcher caricature.  It’s a step in the right direction, but darned if I can’t remember which direction it is.

For Your Eyes Only is rated PG.  Aside from the standard seductions, one woman very nearly exposes too much décolletage, while another wears a transparent white top and (in another scene) exposes her buttocks.  A few men are injured in aquatic scenes, with blood floating in the water; several other deaths occur, mostly off-screen and/or bloodlessly.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return – in the New Year – in a review of Octopussy (1983) on January 7, 2014!  (Heads-up:  like Moonraker, I’ve never actually been able to finish Octopussy.  We’re in trouble.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

About Time (2013)

I’m about to say something extremely significant, and for its significance to hit you like it ought, please keep in mind that Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and Gravity all came out this year; each of them received a rather glowing review from yours truly.

Having said that, About Time is very nearly (if not entirely) my favorite movie of the year – a beautiful moving comedy that yanks at those heartstrings without losing sight of its own unique sense of humor.

On his 21st birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) receives some shocking news from his father (Bill Nighy) – the men in the family can travel through time.  After realizing it’s not a practical joke, Tim moves to London to live with depressed playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) and falls in love with Mary (Rachel McAdams) in a plot that is making me weepy just to think about it.

Truly, I cannot do justice in words to just how hard “right in the feels” this movie hit me.  About Time is a story so well told that it achieves greatness by virtue of its innocuous sincerity.  I’m often accused (sometimes by myself) of taking films too cerebrally, of a chronic inability to surrender to being moved by a film, but I can safely point to About Time as the evidence that proves I can still be swept wholly and completely away by the right film.

About Time is that film, offered as a litmus test for true empathetic humanity.  Aside from the obligatory remark of how refreshing it is to see an original, self-contained film that does everything right without gambling on a franchise, About Time handles characterization with a pitch-perfect blend of spot-on casting (especially with the avuncular ethos of Bill Nighy) and brilliant writing from director/writer Richard Curtis, who already won hearts with Love Actually.  Rather than being didactically instructed which characters to care about, About Time allows us to come to love Tim, Mary, and Dad (and even curmudgeonly Harry) as though we really knew them.  Gleeson distills the brand of endearingly awkward into a compelling performance, McAdams is as stunningly lovable as always, and Nighy is the force of nature that is “Bill Nighy” at his best – paternal, charming, and witty.

The performances are all top-notch (what else would we expect from a predominantly British cast?), but what’s truly remarkable is the plotting of the film, which Curtis’s screenplay unfolds without the typical show-off flourishes of most time travel narratives.  Instead of wowing us with sleight of hand, Curtis opts for an exploration of the basic human condition – the search for the meaning of life in finding the love of your life – that just so happens to include time travel.  As a result, the real surprises of the film come not from “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff” (as The Doctor so snappily put it) but from smart scripting, as when the sideplot involving Tim’s sister develops in the background until its significance becomes foregrounded in a way that’s both surprising and (in hindsight) obvious.  Throughout it all, nothing is wasted, no scene goes by without deepening the characters or furthering the plot.

The greatest surprise, the most fantastic triumph of About Time comes from the astounding emotional resonance the film carries without resorting to the saccharine tropes we might expect from a romantic comedy.  Instead, we get moments of powerful devotion, assisted by the touching chemistry between Gleeson and McAdams, and a brutally slow-burn approach to making the audience cry.  I saw the film with a mostly full house, and the sniffles could be heard beginning an hour from the end; my eyes were on a perma-misty setting I didn’t know I had until the waterworks turned on all the way about twenty minutes to the end, at a point which I could identify precisely if it didn’t spoil one of the most touching scenes in the film.  Suffice it to say that About Time is the film that would move even the stonyhearted Pharaoh to tears – it certainly got me.

With the onslaught of Oscarbait movies coming this month (some of which will probably be very good), I’m holding onto About Time as the movie that moved me the most, which left me physically enervated but emotionally rejuvenated.  Even in a year filled with successful superhero outings like Man of Steel and works of breathtaking artistry like Gravity, About Time has moved into that place in my heart for movies that resonate so profoundly with everything I believe about the world – a movie to which I can point and say, “That’s a movie about the world I live in.”  For those of us looking for that emotionally perfect movie, a panacea for the hopeless romantic in all of us, it’s About Time.

About Time is rated R “for language and some sexual content.”  A topless photograph of Kate Moss is seen in a gallery exhibition, while a few sexual encounters (and their aftermaths) are depicted with no nudity (one does, however, include my new favorite seduction line, which involves the removal of new pajamas).  There is a smattering of strong profanities, and one character is hospitalized with a few cuts and bruises.  Ultimately, a rather soft R.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has been compared to The Empire Strikes Back, particularly along the lines of being a solid and just-different-enough second entry in a trilogy (though Hunger Games is going the cashgrab route by splitting Mockingjay into two).  The positive reviews are fantastic news for fans of the franchise – and, I suspect, newcomers – even if the movie doesn’t quite stick the landing.

After she and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) defied the Capitol to win the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) learns that the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has arranged for her to enter the arena once more in the 75th “Quarter Quell” Hunger Games.  While facing off against other returning winners of Hunger Games past, Katniss and Peeta struggle to form new alliances while convincing the spectators they’re still in love.

Though Gary Ross did a fine job with the first outing, director Francis Lawrence (no relation, apparently) outshines his predecessor by eliminating some of Ross’s arthouse excesses – especially the shaky-cam and what I called “decadence by Lady Gaga” – and opting for a steadier approach to the story which lets the narrative instability – that is, the internal conflicts and burgeoning rebellions – carry through nonetheless.  Lawrence is equally at home directing ballroom dances, political scheming, and stealth-based action, a versatile hand at the till.

Perhaps more remarkable is the unbelievably talented cast, elevating this from the “teenybopper” genre into something with a little more gravitas.  Jennifer Lawrence, despite being an Oscar winner, never feels like she’s slumming it, instead giving it her all as the steely archer Katniss.  The rest of the returning cast are all still quite good; Sutherland is deliciously smarmy, Woody Harrelson is still stalwart as the drunken mentor Haymitch, and Elizabeth Banks steps up her game as Effie Trinket, the PR shadow who grows a conscience.  For my own philosophical reasons, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the love triangle plotline (something I didn’t dig in the books, either), but Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are capable – the former more so, since he’s given more to do.

As with Thor: The Dark World, in which the supremely talented Idris Elba gets a solid bit part as Heimdall, god of light, Catching Fire is littered with resplendently talented thespians fleshing out the side characters.  Ostensibly the most significant such example is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s appearance as shifty new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee; though he doesn’t go in for all the zany beards and spangly outfits, Hoffman’s Plutarch fits in with the sinister Capitol crowd, shiftily untrustworthy with an innocuous glint in his eye.  Also joining the cast:  Geoffrey Wright as a tech-savvy Tribute, bringing his usual class and impeccable diction; Amanda Plummer, his schizo opposite number; and Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, compellingly managing the character’s manic oscillations between sultry and shouty.  (Spoilers?  I’m especially glad she’ll be back for the sequel, since she has perfect love/hate chemistry with Lawrence.)

This sequel manages to achieve that different-but-familiar sensation, preserving the basic dystopia/decadence/arena formula of the first film without feeling repetitive (a claim, oddly enough, I can’t say holds true for the source material).  There’s just enough difference – difference done well, too – that the film manages to step into what feels like a new place, giving it that Empire Strikes Back feel:  doing the right stuff again, adding in new and better stuff (in this analogy, I suppose Hoffman is our Lando Calrissian), and ditching the parts that didn’t work.  Unfortunately, also like Empire, Catching Fire doesn’t really end; instead, the movie cuts to black just when things were getting really interesting, inviting moviegoers back for what’s already a cashgrab in two pieces.  

After Prometheus, I have a little less patience for this kind of thing, but I suppose that the biggest compliment I can pay Catching Fire is that the preceding two hours are so successful that the last-minute “To Be Continued” ends up being entirely inoffensive.  If this is fire, I’m happy to catch it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 “for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.”  The combat scenes are shorter than in the first Hunger Games, though there are several explosions that toss bodies around.  In one scene, howling monkeys torment our heroes; in another, demonic mockingbirds.  Throughout, the specter of death haunts each character, and in one scene a woman undresses in front of three others, with no nudity shown.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Last Vegas (2013)

We’ve come to regard The Hangover as a kind of golden standard which at least perfected the “weekend gone wrong” genre (if not kickstarting it).  And Last Vegas, with its all-star cast of Hollywood’s golden-year’d actors, has been marketed as a kind of Hangover for the over-50 crowd (or, unintentionally, 20-somethings like me).  But where Last Vegas sputters in places The Hangover soared, the film ultimately entertains on the sheer ethos of its A-list, A-game stars.

Last Vegas finds Michael Douglas on the eve of his marriage to his early-30s trophy girlfriend.  After convincing the reluctant Robert De Niro to join in spite of his “unresolved issues” with Douglas, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman fly to Las Vegas for the big reunion and the bachelor party for their perennially single friend.  Hijinks, of course, ensue.

Where The Hangover was innovative in the unexpected relentlessness of its rolling-in-the-aisles laughs, Last Vegas is the victim of its own marketing campaign, which tragically blew some of the best gags in the film (the rotating bed and Morgan Freeman’s window escape, to allude to a few).  And having seen the trailer more than once (the consequence of being a too-frequent moviegoer), these truly funny moments didn’t elicit much more than a weak chuckle – less than they deserved, but all I could muster.  There are a few genuine laughs (i.e., the conceit that a misogynistic “bro” mistakes the four friends for mobsters), but the best, to rework the old Browning poem, has already been.

Last Vegas never really surpasses the brilliant idea of “let’s get all our talented old people in one movie” (see also Red, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).  And not every movie needs to surpass convention, so if I dial back my standards of grandeur Last Vegas ends up being a pretty successful film.  The “Flatbush Four” are all reliably gifted performers and play to their strengths – Douglas the charismatic bachelor, De Niro the crochety East Coaster, Freeman the polysyllabic golden-throat, and Kline the goofy sidekick.  We know their work well enough to know what to expect, though a nice surprise comes from De Niro’s more heartfelt moments; from an actor who sometimes seems to phone it in, it’s nice to see a performance that (while not Oscar-worthy) still plucks a heartstring or two.  In fact, any one of these actors is worth the price of admission, and the combination of four can’t help but succeed, even in a bad movie (which, fortunately, Last Vegas isn’t).

The other nice surprise about the film – which, decently, the trailers didn’t spoil – is Mary Steenburgen’s lounge singer Diana, a keen counterpart to the testosterone-heavy cast.  (Sidebar:  I just realized she’s for this film what Heather Graham was for The Hangover.)  She won’t be passing any Bechdel tests any time soon, and I can’t say I was a fan of the predictable “older woman course-corrects girl-crazy bachelor” plotline, but at least the film keeps us guessing on which bachelor she’ll land.  Diana is a different brand of character than the competitive machismo fleshing out the rest of the cast, often calling out characters on their self-deceptions; it’s a clever storytelling technique which allows the film to be smarter than a less rigorous draft of the screenplay would have been.

Ultimately, Last Vegas didn’t knock me out like I wanted it to, but 90 minutes in the company of four of Hollywood’s finest is, to quote one of my professors from my first semester of graduate school, “as good a choice as any.”

Last Vegas is rated PG-13 “for sexual content and language.”  There’s a seduction scene in which nudity is implied, though we see nothing more than bare shoulders; there are a few unenthusiastic and brief innuendos, as well as (according to IMDb) one F-bomb and a few weaker profanities.  Quite tame, particularly compared to The Hangover.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

We’re halfway through Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man 3 behind us, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy ahead before The Avengers: Age of Ultron), and things are looking pretty good from where I’m sitting, even with creative changes behind the scenes.  With Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor picks up the directorial reins and turns in an exceptionally fun fantasy that carves out a filmic identity for the Norse god.

When a cadre of Dark Elves led by the malicious Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) seeks to destroy the entire universe, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – the god of thunder – returns to Earth to rescue his lady love, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s been awaiting his arrival in the wake of the events of The Avengers.  When Thor discovers that Jane has a strange connection to Malekith’s plan, he reluctantly jailbreaks his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with the fate of all existence in the balance.

With a new director at the helm, it’s surprising that Thor: The Dark World feels as familiar as it does, though Taylor and crew take a few steps into new territory that keeps this sequel from feeling stale.  The best comparison I can make is to Star Wars:  like the iconic Star Wars, the Thor franchise seems to be moving in a science-fictional comedy sphere, with spaceships, laser guns, and interplanetary travel decorating the sprawling plot.  Taylor amps up the science fiction angle, stepping away from the hubristic theology of Kenneth Branagh’s work on the first Thor in favor of a more light-hearted space opera.  The comic relief might be overdone for some – Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig has become a kind of caricature, though it’s not without purpose – but for me it’s a fine counterpart to the Sturm und Drang of Chris Nolan’s DC work.

But don’t mistake an expanded scenery for a reinvention of the wheel.  Thor: The Dark World retains much of what we loved about the first film and gives us more of it.  Those who loved Thor hitting things with Mjolnir (whose absurd nickname also gets a callback) will be satisfied, and even those who found the Thor/Jane love story less than compelling may be pleasantly surprised here.  While these individual films still haven’t quite reckoned with questions like “Where are the other heroes?” Thor: The Dark World sticks the standalone landing by focusing on what makes it unique as a franchise – near-Shakespearean characters in superheroic action.

Best of all, Thor: The Dark World recognizes the strengths of its supporting cast by giving room to the returning faces, even as newcomers like Eccleston give us classically comic-booky performances (in the best kind of way).  As snarky intern Darcy, Kat Dennings gets one of the most expanded roles, sassing her way into the audience’s heart while even getting a small sort of arc of her own.  (It’s a shame Jamie Alexander’s Lady Sif doesn’t get the same treatment; the “love triangle” the trailers promised never really comes to pass.)

Tragically for Hemsworth, though he’s more than capable as the brash yet compassionate protagonist, he’s completely and utterly upstaged by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  Indeed, I suspect we’re not too far away from a Loki solo film (at least, if Tumblr has anything to say about it), and it’s entirely due to Hiddleston’s charismatic smirk, dynamic eyebrows, and utterly engrossing duplicity as the god of mischief.  Resisting cookie-cutter villainy at every turn, Loki is the dictionary definition of a scene-stealer, replete deeply ambiguous motivations and an inexplicably engaging contempt for all the other characters – especially his do-gooder brother.  Enough good things really cannot be said about Hiddleston, whose every minute of screentime elicited from me an obnoxiously broad grin and repetitive murmurs of “Damn, he’s good.”

Thor: The Dark World is so full of top performers giving their all (I haven’t even mentioned Anthony Hopkins or Idris Elba) that it almost doesn’t matter that the story doesn’t break much ground.  We’ve seen the “ancient evil seeks to restore chaos” before, but the makers of this Thor sequel have put together such a well-told version of the old archetypal narrative that you’ll be too busy having fun to notice.

In fact, fun is the operative word here – an innocuous scifi/romance/adventure story worthy of the heretofore perfect streak of the Marvel brand.

Thor: The Dark World is rated PG-13 “for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content.”  There are bunches of creatures shooting lasers and smashing hammers, all bloodlessly with the occasional explosion or debris field flying about.  There are a few references to Thor’s impeccably muscled physique, one obligatory shirtless scene of the buff god, and a few tame kisses.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Moonraker (1979)

Consistently ranked among the worst of the James Bond films, Moonraker is that rare movie on which I gave up the first time.  A few years ago, after about forty minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore, but after revisiting the film for this review series, I can safely report that I made the wrong move – but only by about twenty minutes.  There’s actually about an hour’s worth of good material in Moonraker before the film descends into a weird self-parodying science-fiction cartoon, a totally bland mess of a movie.

After a space shuttle mysteriously disappears, James Bond (Roger Moore) investigates Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), the creator of said shuttle. Bond quickly forms an alliance with the beautiful astronaut Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) while uncovering Drax’s plan to foster a new master race in outer space – aided by Bond’s returning nemesis Jaws (Richard Kiel).

If the plot sounds exactly like The Spy Who Loved Me by way of Star Wars, don’t adjust your sets; what you’re detecting is a bizarre self-plagiarism that shoots for the moon, misses, and lands not among the stars but in a place devoid of the thrills and sincerity that made Spy a success.  The self-evident lack of creativity damages the film by drawing attention to its faults; what Spy did well, Moonraker bungles, and what Spy bungled, Moonraker outright fails.  Where Stromberg was a little droll yet maniacal, Drax is literally boring, mumbling his lines, shuffling his feet, and never really making eye contact with anyone.  As Drax’s opposite number, Moore is trying – he really is – but Moore’s level of tongue-in-cheek only casts too much light on the inherently absurd film before us.

The film’s greatest sins could encompass a post all their own, though among them are an apparent misunderstanding of the physics of deep space, the whiplash-inducing tonal shift into science fiction once the NASA cavalry arrive with laser guns, and the film’s unforgivable mistreatment of Jaws.  Arguably the major find of the franchise, Jaws was a colossal contributing factor to Spy’s success; the scowl, the physicality, and those teeth all combined into an unforgettable character, which Kiel deftly brought to life.  But the promise contained in Jaws’s pre-credits appearance – really a great opener, in which Bond, Jaws, and another airman battle over two parachutes in free fall – tragically flops when the film demotes Jaws first to a Wile E. Coyote caricature, hapless yet indestructible, before shoehorning him into both an uninspiring romantic subplot and (spoiler warning?) an utterly unconvincing redemption plot.

It’s really a shame, because there’s a skeleton of a great Bond movie in there somewhere, and if we hadn’t just seen the exact same plot in Spy Who Loved Me it’d be a winner; it keeps the sleuthing intact, and the idea that Holly Goodhead is secretly a CIA agent is a clever twist that Chiles pulls off well.  Indeed, it’s almost disappointing that Bond successfully beds her, since her apparent resistance of Bond’s charms is such a compelling angle – a step, perhaps, toward the franchise’s later moves away from the “Bond girl” trope (best embodied, literally, by Britt Ekland’s bikini in The Man with the Golden Gun).

Is Moonraker the worst Bond ever?  I’m not ready to go quite that far – it is, unmistakably, a movie that is difficult to enjoy, at best tepid and uninspiring and at worst viciously schlocky and pretty much bad.  It’s in strong competition with Diamonds Are Forever for my least favorite Bond thus far, and it’s the first entry for which I’ve really agreed with the popular consensus that finds Moore’s Bond guilty of crimes against moviegoers.  And for once, in spite of my usually optimistic outlook, I’m rather uneasy about the future of the franchise; where Diamonds Are Forever might have been shrugged off as Connery’s unenthusiastic last hurrah, we still have three more outings with Roger Moore.

Moonraker is rated PG.  The violence is really quite cartoony, replete with laser guns in the film’s final battle; Bond beds three women, but there’s nothing shown below the shoulders.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of For Your Eyes Only (1981) on December 7, 2013!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Monday at the Movies - November 4, 2013

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, the play’s the thing!

Carnage (2011) – I was actually quite proud of myself on this one because I didn’t let Roman Polanski’s repugnant past impede my enjoyment of Carnage, an adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play.  Instead, I found myself won over by four immensely compelling performances.  Jodie Foster & John C. Reilly play the parents of a boy struck by the son of another couple, Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz.  12 Angry Men fans will likely relish the insular nature of the film, whose action takes place solely within one apartment and its connecting hallway.  This cinematic claustrophobia permits the performances to, pardon the pun, take center stage.  Quickly we see that the ceremony on which the couples stand is a precarious peace predicated on the perpetuation of pretty faces and posturing; Foster’s performance is a bold one as she breaks down and exposes the degree to which her character is entirely full of herself by blubbering through self-satisfied liberal platitudes, while Reilly reveals the polar opposite, a suppressed John Wayne sublimated by his wife’s feelgoodery.  Across the table, Winslet and Waltz are pitch-perfect as self-righteous and condescending spouses who can barely say two words to each other without making a phone call or, quite literally, throwing up.  Waltz is the only one who seems to resist epiphany here, his eye rolls and workaholic behavior an interesting type apart from his talky Tarantino turns.  It’s not that Foster and Reilly are bad, but Winslet and Waltz are in a stratosphere all their own, though they know how to let the other members of the ensemble take the screen back when need be.  An incisive look at how the hot-button issue of bullying may be a load of grandstanding and self-righteousness, Carnage is smart and delightful, four tour-de-force performances in a riveting bundle.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  We’ll see you here next week, and don’t forget that this Thursday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month...!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday at the Movies - October 28, 2013

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, cartoons!

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) – Everyone and her brother knows I’m a Disney snob, a Pixar shill, and an unabashed child-at-heart when it comes to the House of Mouse.  So I will concede that it’s very near impossible for me to say something unreservedly positive about any other studio’s animated output, but I’ll admit that How to Train Your Dragon is about as good as any non-Disney cartoon can be.  In part, this is due to a departure from what I consider Dreamworks house style:  talking animals that fart in between parodies of pop songs.  Instead, How to’s dragons neither speak nor break wind; rather, they emote silently through wide eyes or menacing body language.  The voice cast is also wisely more reserved, avoiding distracting star casting (though I question the logic behind a uniformly Scottish voice cast as Vikings); as father and son, Gerard Butler and Jay Baruchel bring some new life to the less-than-fresh disappointed parent plotline, and Craig Ferguson is always a safe bet as the top supporting character.  How to Train Your Dragon’s big win, though, is in transcending the just-for-kids mentality that seems to govern so many Dreamworks features – no surprise, perhaps, considering that directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who also helped adapt the screenplay from the Cressida Cowell novels, cut their teeth over at Disney with Lilo & Stitch (Sanders even voiced Stitch).  While the studio still has a way to go before it creates something as poetic as the opening montage from Up, Dreamworks gives me some hope that there’s more like How to Train Your Dragon in the running – at least, until the inevitable dragon who, likely to be voiced by Jack Black, possesses the power of flammable flatulence.

Mulan (1998) – Does it make me an old man that I can vividly recall the breathless anticipation when we bought the VHS tape of Mulan?  I was stoked beyond belief for this one (Lion King aside, I wasn’t much of a theatergoer in my younger days until the 1999 Star Wars prequel), and fifteen years later it still holds up as a strong entry in what retrospectively looks like Disney’s “alternative princess” stage (see also Pocahontas, Esmeralda, Megara).  To save her ailing father, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) enters military service in his stead against the invading Hun army; moral support and comic relief is provided by Eddie Murphy as the spunky dragon Mushu.  This is one of those Disney movies where all the elements just work; the “girl in boy’s position” plotline never feels overly politically correct and is played with enough humor and earnest action that there’s something for everyone to find.  At a brisk 87 minutes (that’s including end credits), there’s no fat in the movie, and you may find the movie ending long before you tire of it; the obligatory training montage is pulled off with typical Disney aplomb courtesy of a catchy Donny Osmand track, and the movie’s two big action sequences – a snowbound ambush and a capital city invasion – work better than a lot of conventional action film set pieces thanks to some wise editing and breathtaking animatics that take full advantage of contemporary technology (which still looks first-rate) to give us a breathtaking sense of scope.  Whether viewed earnestly for the first time or nostalgically after years away from a childhood favorite, Mulan is still a fine entry in the Disney animated canon.

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Monday at the Movies - October 21, 2013

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  What’s more Halloween than a murder mystery?

Clue (1985) – Can we draw a line from here to Peter Berg’s Battleship?  Movies based on board games sound like evidence for the death of the imagination in Hollywood, and while the case isn’t quite so bleak with Clue I will say that the movie is significantly less funny than I remembered it.  Anchored by Tim Curry’s extremely immersive performance as butler Wadsworth (at least, in some of the film’s multiple endings), Clue is a comedic update on the whodunit board game, teasing us with Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard, Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum, and Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, among others.  The film is, however, almost entirely Curry’s – and well done there, since his post-Rocky Horror screen presence is more than enough to hold our attention rapt.  This isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy like, say, The Hangover, since the laughs are more subtle (often from an underplayed line by Kahn or a facial contort from Michael McKean’s Mr. Green).  The film’s last twenty minutes, in which Wadsworth recaps the night’s events in order to identify the killer, may sound a bit tedious (and indeed the play-by-play repetition sometimes errs on the side of redundancy) but is actually the source of the film’s strongest laughs, resulting from some madcap physical comedy, shouted refrains, and the wink-nod revelation that “Communism was just a red herring.”  Redeemed by strong comedic performances that occlude the occasional laughlesness, Clue is a solid B-level comedy that leaves a better impression than it actually makes.  (Disclosures:  my rosy recollections may have led me to be disappointed, and the fact that my moviegoing partner on this one fell asleep may factor into my disenchantment.)

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Machete Kills (2013)

If Grindhouse was an experiment in schlocky double-features, 2010’s Machete was the surprise hit lovechild, embraced as an unapologetic love letter to the B-movie genre even as it managed to make itself enjoyable beyond homage.  The sequel Machete Kills is in a weird place – it’s very much in the same tradition as its predecessor, though it suffers a bit from the law of diminishing returns by being a bit overfull of (for lack of a better term) stuff.

Danny Trejo returns as Machete Cortez, now working on the side of the United States to repel cartel incursions.  To avenge the death of his partner, Machete accepts an offer from President Rathcock (Charlie “Carlos Estevez” Sheen) to track down the mad revolutionary Mendez (Demián Bichir), who’s aimed a missile at Washington, D.C.  But Machete quickly becomes embroiled in a larger scheme involving bounty hunters and villainous weapons manufacturer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson).

If you weren’t a fan of Machete, the door’s over there, because Machete Kills is in many ways more of the same.  Trejo does his “Mexploitation” bit as well as he’s always done, growling and lumbering his way through fight scenes that ought to be beyond an actor approaching 70 (yes, he’s 69).  The master deadpan delivery that made “Machete don’t text” part of the vernacular in the original returns here, with more Machete-don’ts to add to the list.  Trejo may not have become an A-lister, but it’s safe to say he’s a real star.

The rest of the cast is rounded out with the requisite number of fun cameos – perhaps even more so, including a few big names all playing the same role through a neat gimmick that never gets old.  Sheen’s role is essentially the same joke over and over again (what if Charlie Sheen were president?), replete with a “winning” reference, but it’s a fun repetition.  Even more fun are Bichir’s Jekyll-and-Hyde by way of Speedy Gonzalez and Gibson’s scenery-devouring archvillain.  Essentially a comic version of the villain from Moonraker, Gibson turns Voz into an exceptionally entertaining figure, managing to sell excessively cheesy moments like his confession that he’s a big Star Wars fan.

I’ve said so many good things about the film, and there are more to say; Michelle Rodriguez returns as taco trucker Shé/Luz, and she gets an opposite number in Amber Heard’s beauty queen secret agent Miss San Antonio.  Plus Jessica Alba returns, plus we get closure on Osiris Amanpour (Tom Savini) from the last film, plus Sofia Vergara, plus... you get the picture.  Machete Kills is a movie bursting at the seams (an apt metaphor, considering the absurd amount of cleavage on display) with high-concept ideas and big-name guest spots that the movie feels a bit too full, to the detriment of some of the film’s more enjoyable elements.  Alba, who’s finally managing to overcome her early years as a talentless pretty face, is shuffled off-screen quickly – a dismissal, one suspects, made in order to insert more of Vergara’s scantily-clad prostitutes (a disappointing move, considering the first Machete film actually passed the Bechdel Test).

It’s not that anything in the movie doesn’t work – although William Sadler’s one-note vigilante sheriff comes close, retreading ground more successfully covered in Machete.  But there’s so much to enjoy in the film that much of it doesn’t get its proper due.  Bichir’s schizophrenic madman does about as much as it ought to, but I can’t be alone in hoping to have seen more of Gibson as Voz – especially since it’s more “campy baddie” than “career implosion” (can we all agree that Mel’s done his penance?).  In many aspects, Machete Kills leaves the audience wanting more, but not in a good way; it’s closer to dropping the mic than leaving on a high note.

Indeed, the note on which the film ends is a curious one.  After having already seen the trailer for Machete Kills Again... in Space! before Machete Kills (another grindhouse-y touch), the film proper’s last act builds to a climax that might come in the next sequel.  This kind of delay is usually a kiss of death (see the insulting way Prometheus pulled a fast one on its audience), but it almost doesn’t matter with Machete Kills, which is more about the fun you have along the way and the big ideas that don’t get fleshed out.  It might even be appropriate in the grindhouse vein if we never see Machete Kills Again... in Space! (and if box office receipts have anything to say, we probably won’t).

So while it’s no Machete, Machete Kills is fun enough to justify its own existence, even if we know Robert Rodriguez is capable of a little bit better.  Now can we please finally get Sin City 2?

Machete Kills is rated R “for strong bloody violence throughout, language and some sexual content.”  There’s as many bloody gunshots, dismemberments, and stabbings as in the last one, though much of it is done in deliberately cheap special effects that might take the sting out of it.  There are hundreds of F-bombs and scatological/anatomical derogations; aside from one woman in bottomless chaps, there’s no nudity, though plenty of women are seen in the skimpiest and gravity-defyingest attire.  And it’s implied one woman sleeps with Machete, though the visual gag is unlikely to offend (heads-up: don’t complain to the manager when you see it).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gravity (2013)

If Alfonso Cuarón isn’t a name you already know (most recently, see also Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men), I truly hope that Gravity is the movie that changes that for you.  Although I’m willing to chock up some of my exuberance to the giddy breathlessness that accompanies a late-night screening after an otherwise dismal Friday, I’m sure that when I wake up in the morning I’ll have similarly positive things to say about Gravity.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as spacewalking astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski on a routine space shuttle mission.  The peaceful silence of space, though, quickly gives way to devastating terror when incoming space debris sends the astronauts hurtling through the vastness of deep space.

As someone who was a little bored and more than a little underwhelmed by 2001: A Space Odyssey (though maybe I was too young to appreciate it, as was the case with The Shining), the idea of 91 minutes in scientifically accurate space seemed unexciting, the perfect recipe for tedium.  But make no mistake:  while Gravity carries a rather sparse plot, Cuarón crafts an intense film that can really only be described as an experience.  Long stretches of the film play out in near silence, protracting the crushing tension of the protagonists’ literally impossible struggle to survive in such an unforgiving environment.

Full disclosure?  The tension becomes so unbearable that I almost cried at one point.  After a mesmerizing long-take opening that introduces us to the physics of orbit, a pervading sense of inescapable danger grips the audience and really never lets go (aside from a few deflating moments that are criminal to spoil because of how well they work).  Cuarón deftly keeps the anxiety just under boiling, turning your knuckles white without cracking the armrest onto which you’re gripping for dear life.  It’s riveting, connecting us to characters so simply and so effectively that their hopeless struggle gets us right in the most primal places – either slackjawed breathlessness or the tears of inescapable doom.

Though the star of the film is clearly and rightly Cuarón’s directorial skill, Bullock and Clooney are solid supports for the movie magic; having attained reputations as Hollywood’s everywoman and –man, they bring instant relatability without sacrificing any of the thespianic skill you’d lose with a cast of unknowns.  At the same time, they don’t rest on their recognizable laurels and allow the visual effects to carry the film; aside from a few forgivable moments of mildly ham-handed character development, Bullock and Clooney are in top form, playing distilled versions of their respective personae (Bullock as the career-driven single mom, Clooney as the gregarious professional).

Having said that, I doubt that Gravity will win any new converts to the Bullock or Clooney Clubs, nor do I anticipate much love in those departments come awards season.  I can’t, however, imagine that Cuarón will emerge unhonored; rather, the smart money goes toward Cuarón taking home a few statues, either for his taut and edgy script or for his directorial aplomb.  I really can’t stress enough – nor can I do justice in mere prose – how effective Gravity is at quickly engaging the viewer and then buckling them in for the closest approximation of weightlessness and all its perils.  Cuarón, pardon the cliché, really shows how it’s done by setting what I’m predicting is a gold standard in science fiction film (between this and Nolan’s Interstellar:  good luck, Star Wars), and it’s unfathomable to suppose that he won’t gain some wider attention outside of the “auteur” (read: indie) box into which he’s often unfairly placed.  How appropriate, then, if this is the film that launches Cuarón into the big leagues.

As an October release, Gravity is somewhat hidden, sandwiched between summer blockbusters and winter Oscar bait.  But I’m confident that I’m not alone in positioning Gravity as easily one of the top ten films I’ve seen this year, a real breathless tour de force that’s at once exhausting and exhilarating.

Gravity is rated PG-13 “for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.”  We see the grisly aftereffects of exposure to deep space in the form of a few lifeless bodies; the potential for an awful suffocating death dogs our protagonists’ every step/float, and at times the tension is nearly unbearable.  One F-bomb gets dropped, a welcome relief from the crushing silence.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me is a big moment for this reviewer – it’s #10 in the canon, the first (in sequence) Bond film I’d never seen before this review series, it introduces the iconic nemesis Jaws, and it’s consistently ranked as Roger Moore’s best entry as Agent 007.  Goldfinger’s not in any danger of being dethroned as the top Bond flick, but I’d say Spy is about as good as Moore has gotten thus far.  Third time, as they say, is the charm.

As British and Soviet submarines go missing, James Bond (Moore) is dispatched to find out how the subs are being tracked, while his opposite number in the KGB, Anya “XXX” Amasova (Barbara Bach), does the same.  Amid tussles with the steel-toothed crony Jaws (Richard Kiel), 007 and XXX uncover the plot of madman Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) to develop a master race dwelling in an underwater biosphere.

It sounds kind of hokey to type out like that – and indeed there is something implausible in the big scheme – but the execution works because it plays much closer to director Lewis Gilbert’s last Bond outing, You Only Live Twice (which saw Blofeld stealing rockets to hold the world hostage).  And as the tenth Bond film in fifteen years, this one is populated with what feel like shout-outs to some of the series’ greatest hits:  XXX references Tracy Bond, Stromberg’s lair recalls Dr. No’s aquarium dining room, and Jaws plays very successfully like an update of silent butler Oddjob.  These little nods add up to a rewarding experience that winks endearingly at the audience, as all good Bond films ought to.

Another great thing about Spy is how well Moore comes into the role.  I’ve given Moore positive marks in his first two outings as the top superspy, but those notes always came with the caveat that he was no Sean Connery.  With Spy, Moore fully steps out of Connery’s shadow and comes up with a Bond that is quite original and wholly his.  He’s light when he needs to be (including a great scene where he zings off one-liners as Amasova attempts to drive stick) and romantic enough to make his seductions plausible.  Better, though, Moore deftly makes the shift to action hero, at home in hand-to-hand combat with the titanic Jaws and mastering the cold-blooded disdain that Bond ought to have when confronting megalomaniacs like Stromberg.

It’s only a shame that the other actors in the film don’t kill it like Moore does.  In the unfortunate tradition of most “Bond girls,” Barbara Bach is badly miscast with an inconsistent Russian accent to match.  It’s clear she was cast more for her décolletage than her delivery, to the film’s detriment; the plotline in which she comes to realize that Bond killed her lover (in a stellar pre-credits sequence involving ski jumps and the most British parachute ever) would have been much better served in the hands of a defter actress – or at least an actress who can emote beyond doe-eyed.  (I wonder what someone like Julie Christie could have brought to the role.)

Additionally, I wasn’t sold by Curt Jurgens as the villain, since he overplays the grandiloquence of the character without leveling in much menace.  His part in the film is small, restricted to his base of operations; in almost every scene Stromberg is seated at his dinner table, which subconsciously suggests that he might have been phoning it in a bit.  Jurgens is far from the franchise’s best villain, though the creative team manages to make his nutty scheme bearable if not plausible.  (Sidebar:  Apparently James Mason was considered for the role – what a loss for moviegoers everywhere that he wasn’t hired!)  Wisely, it seems, the film relies more on Jaws, an unstoppable physical force, a silent giant with a great visual hook.

With a lackluster villain and an uninspiring Bond girl – arguably two-thirds of the Bond formula – it’s even more surprising that the film works as well as it does.  Perhaps Moore gets a bad rap, since it’s predominantly his shoulders upon which the film rests and succeeds.  He’s a fine Bond here, and the decision to set much of the film in the Middle East gives a unique and intriguing atmosphere that makes the film eminently watchable. 

The Spy Who Loved Me is rated PG.  The “nudity” in the opening credits is a little clearer than it usually is, and in addition to Bond seducing two women we see one naked from the side through hazy shower glass.  There are explosions galore, a few fist/gunfights, and one of Bond’s coldest kills ever (though no blood is seen).

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of Moonraker (1979) on November 7, 2013!  And I’ll be back on Thursday for a review of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity – stay tuned!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday at the Movies - September 30, 2013

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  With Halloween fast approaching, it’s time to get into a spookier mood, so today a sequel of sorts to last October’s haunted Halloween.

Room 237 (2012) – On paper, at least, I make my living by interpreting, at best observing significant patterns and at worst “reading into” things.  So for someone like me, Room 237 is a spellbinding documentary about what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining really meansThe Shining is a film on which I had to do a complete 180 regarding my opinion, due in large part to the hermeneutical depth one can plumb with this film.  The theories put forth in this film range from the plausible to the endearingly absurd; one credible theorist posits that the film is about the nature of evil (sure), while another points to the prevalence of Native American imagery as a commentary on genocide (well, now that you mention it...).  Sidebar:  My favorite is the one about how Kubrick faked the moon landing while filming 2001: A Space Odyssey, with The Shining as his covert confession.  While some of the interpretations are quite clearly out there – and this documentary obviously knows it (one dubious theory is followed by a clip of Jack Nicholson intoning, “Whatever you say, Lloyd”) – the real fun of the film is in seeing the enthusiasm these interpreters have for their pet theories and in the way that Room 237 returns frequently to its source material to show the audience what the interpreters are seeing (highlighting, for example, the native iconography in the freezer).  But at the end of the day, what I really enjoyed about Room 237 is how similar it is to watching The Shining with a group of friends, each as invested in the act of interpretation as I am.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We won't see you here next week, since next Monday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month, and I happen to have a date with The Spy Who Loved Me...