Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday at the Movies - February 25, 2013

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, two films that (spoiler warning) should have been better.

The Grey (2012) – Somewhere between The Phantom Menace and Taken, Liam Neeson turned into a proper action hero to the point where he literally ran The A-Team.  Neeson rapidly developed a steady fanbase ready to follow him into any vehicle.  And the premise of The Grey, as initially marketed, is as tempting as any the man could possibly have accepted; the original trailers billed the film as, essentially, “Taken with wolves.”  “Come see Liam Neeson punch wolves,” the trailers promised, but when I finally caught up to the movie I got something entirely different – a somber character study of a suicidal survivalist up against a natural embodiment of death.  Neeson stars as the leader of a group of plane crash survivors who trek through the tundra in search of rescue, while a pack of wolves threatens their journey.  I try not to criticize a movie for being something other than what I was expecting (indeed, defying expectations is often a good thing), but The Grey was a bit misleading, promising a confrontation we never actually get.  Neeson is characteristically compelling as John Ottway, again toting a bag of skills akin to those he possessed in Taken, and his morose voiceover sells the narration, a filmic technique I often resist for telling and not showing.  Unfortunately, though, the film’s big antagonist – the wolf pack – never really looks convincing; I’m sure it’s a preemptive strike against animal cruelty folks, but the wolves are often stationary or shot in tight close-up, never giving them a proper sense of menace – or motion.  At the end of the day, Neeson turns in great work, per usual, but the film is certainly something other than what you’ve been led to believe.

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)Grindhouse, what have ye wrought?  Once upon a time, there was a clear distinction between movies and rubbish, but after Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino did a loving riff on the B-movie genre, the lesson learned seems to have inspired tasteless filmmakers to call their work “homage” and expect to get away with it.  Hobo with a Shotgun (itself originally a Grindhouse trailer) stars Rutger Hauer, grizzly as ever, as the titular residentially-challenged vigilante who aims to reclaim the streets “one shell at a time.”  While the film claims to be a tribute to the low-budget exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, what it really amounts to is a bloody mess of a thing, oversaturated beyond visual comprehension and unrelenting in its pointless violence.  Hobo with a Shotgun never reaches past its title, never dodges the generic clichés that dominate the script, never even surprises; the film is deliberately cheap and overly juvenile, teenaged Tarantino let loose in a warehouse full of fake gore with none of the wit or self-awareness from either Planet Terror or Death Proof – or even Machete, the other Grindhouse trailer-cum-feature.  Hobo with a Shotgun substitutes fun for bloodlust, assuming that the audience will delight in the director’s mania for dismemberment; on this account, perhaps they succeed, because a base feeling of revulsion is the only human emotion (not counting boredom) that the film managed to elicit.  Maybe I’m taking this too seriously; maybe I’m just too old for this.  But there’s little that’s earnest about Hobo with a Shotgun, and it’s a colossally unwatchable beast.

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

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday at the Movies - February 18, 2013

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  On the dock for today, two films marketed as comedies – but which one is actually funny?

The Dictator (2012) – Look, I’m a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, both his prankumentary style (which he perfected in 2006’s Borat) and his more traditional character work (with which he stole Les Misérables).  On the surface, The Dictator ought to be a delightful blend of those two – a scripted comedy about a hapless Middle Easterner with a ludicrous accent.  Instead, what you get is a confused and barely-funny satire of... well, the film never quite focuses on one target long enough for a sustained take on Arab dictatorship, college yuppie liberalism, or American democracy.  Any one of these could be the subject for a clever comedy, but the odd melding of the three leaves us uncertain who we’re supposed to root for.  Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen with his usual enthusiasm, but he’s pumping air into a disappointingly lifeless script which is, for vast stretches, entirely without laughs.  Many of the gaffes are predictable, elongated beyond their worth, or just plain unfunny, and even Cohen’s trademark disappearance behind the character isn’t enough to engage the audience.  There are a few chuckles to be had – cameos by John C. Reilly and a self-deprecating Megan Fox gesture toward a palpable and intriguing direction for the film – but mostly the film seems unsure what it wants to be and tries to be all those things at once, making for a very disunified whole.  The film is a lot like Ben Kingsley’s role therein (yes, Sir Ben costars):  you don’t quite know how so many talented people got into such a mess, but you’re disappointed that they’re not doing better work.

21 Jump Street (2012) – Nothing about this movie screams success; in fact, nothing about the film should work.  A remake of an ’80s TV show, 21 Jump Street stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as undercover cops in a high school where new illegal drugs are being distributed.  I repeat:  no part of that sentence has really ever worked in a movie before.  Yet there’s something about 21 Jump Street that is surprising in a very good way:  the movie is very funny, rather clever, and just downright better than it ought to be.  Hill and Tatum have tangible chemistry as partners, best friends, and pseudo-brothers; they play off each other like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do in Shaun of the Dead (among others), exploiting each other’s foibles while working together to accomplish their goals.  The film is incredibly self-aware, with many characters acknowledging and poking fun at the fact that Hill and Tatum look far too old to be high schoolers, but the film’s greater strength is its funny script given life by a bevy of talented supporting cast members.  It’s almost enough just to mention their names – Nick Offerman, Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle – because their work is reliable and solid.  (Kudos also to Ice Cube, who practically steals the show as a self-conscious walking stereotype who shouts about Miranda rights and “Korean Jesus.”)  And yes, that original 21 Jump cast member makes a fun appearance, too.  A surprisingly entertaining entry from a team that’s never really delighted me before, 21 Jump Street deserves more than the casual brush-off its premise usually elicits.

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

Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday at the Movies - February 11, 2013

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  On the dock for today, a few films that look like other works – but is that always a bad thing?

Meet the Robinsons (2007) – I know that I’m an unrepentant Disney shill, but when I say that Meet the Robinsons is essentially Disney/Pixar’s version of Doctor Who, I mean that in the best, most wibbly-wobbly way I can:  Meet the Robinsons combines Doctor Who’s timey-wimey mechanics and sense of wonder with the classic Disney sentimentalism and compelling storytelling, to great effect.  Loosely adapted from William Joyce’s A Day with Wilbur Robinson (a favorite of mine as a young boy), this film weaves a time-travel narrative while layering on a rich subplot about finding your place in the world amid a cast of kooky characters whose madcap personalities mean they share a house, a surname, and little else.  The Robinsons are oddball supporting characters, each quirky without excess, though Adam West’s turn as the spandex-clad pizza deliveryman uncle is a surprising treat.  The real delight in Meet the Robinsons, though, is how surprisingly profound it is; a Disney movie usually doesn’t include heavy meditations on the future consequences of the present, nor has the “best friends” relationship been explored in as much satisfying depth.  What’s more, the time travel element of the film allows for a few neat third-act surprises that even caught me off-guard.  Truly, the influence of John Lasseter looms large over Meet the Robinsons, because the film mixes high concept sci-fi designs with moving character arcs that sucker-punch an earnest tear right into the corner of your eye.  Come for the gee-whiz marveling at a great big beautiful tomorrow, stay for the feelings.

The Three Stooges (2012) – The words I’d like to use to describe this film are unsuitable for general consumption, so I’ll simply begin with a three-letter word:  Why?  Why make a movie that wears its unoriginality on its sleeve and pretends to be an homage?  Why steal three classic characters and recycle them with lesser performers who are little more than impersonators?  (In fact, I don’t need to tell you who’s in it, because it doesn’t matter.)  Why shoehorn the Three Stooges into a halfhearted and instantly recognizable “Save the Catholic Orphanage” knockoff of The Blues Brothers?  Why watch this mess of a movie when there are dozens of funnier shorts starring the real Three Stooges?  Why did I even sit through this whole thing, when the episodic nature of the film makes it easy to stop partway through?  The world may never know the answers to these questions, because this is one of those “Abandon all hope” kinds of movies, where there are only weak chuckles, at best, to be had.  The film imitates the Stooges’ style with so little invention that you’re left wondering what the whole point was – especially when the film concludes with the film’s directors reminding you that the stage violence, the real heart of a Stooges short, was all fake and should not be replicated at home.  It’s this kind of lifeless balloon deflating that reminds us the Stooges need not be redone; even the attempt at relevance by having Moe poke Snooki in the eyes fails to garner a smile.

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

Thursday, February 7, 2013

From Russia with Love (1963)

From Russia with Love begins with a daring move – in the franchise’s first pre-credits sequence (establishing a trend of these “mini-movies”), James Bond is assassinated.  After a quick turnabout, it’s revealed that “Bond” was only an impersonator in a mask, part of an elaborate training exercise to prepare one man to kill another.  As hooks go, you don’t get much better, so it’s a fitting opener to one of the franchise’s best.

This pre-credits sequence establishes some of the film’s confidence because even though there’s only been one other movie, it’s already plausible that James Bond is dangerous enough to necessitate an entire organization dedicated to his assassination.  Fleming’s book is among the best, as well, because it both makes this plot believable as well as feasible; there are moments in the book when it seems the plot might actually succeed (never mind the fact that Fleming wanted to be done with Bond after writing From Russia with Love, like Doyle with “The Final Problem”).  The film, though, doesn’t go that route; Sean Connery is still super-cool as the world’s greatest special agent, and we never suspect the danger is more than he can handle.

Instead, the film demonstrates how well-prepared Bond is for this latest threat:  armed with a multifunctional satchel (courtesy of Desmond Llewellyn, debuting as Q) that would make Mary Poppins envious, Bond decides to spring what he knows is a trap in search of the bait – a Soviet decoding machine guarded by Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi).  What Bond doesn’t know is that the trap is part of SPECTRE’s elaborate plot for revenge, and that assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) and Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) are following his every move...

Maybe even more than Dr. No, you can really see the filmmakers setting tonal precedents for the rest of the franchise:  the silent killer, the sexless crony (Lenya is perfect in this role), the unseen puppetmaster stroking a cat.  For a film that focuses a great deal on its villains – Bond doesn’t appear for 20 minutes, doppelganger notwithstanding – From Russia with Love has a great cast doing exceptional work, establishing archetypes that would be parodied for decades to come.

What is less convincing, unfortunately, is the set of protagonists.  Obviously, I’ve praised Connery’s work as 007, which is as convincing and entertaining at ever.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t do terribly much for the first half of the film, left to stand around as a spectator as the other characters fill in exposition for him and wait for things to happen.  The second half, though, is classic Bond, with chase scenes and explosions and gunfights galore, resulting in a tense and claustrophobic classic confrontation aboard the Orient Express.  (A more even treatment of Bond would be found in the series’ next outing.)

As Tatiana Romanova, Bianchi is attractive – one of the only requirements for a Bond girl – though the poor dubbing of her voice, as well as the mild confusion over what her role in the plot truly is, results in a bit of an uneven characterization; it’s never really clear (or, perhaps, it’s just badly performed) whether her love for Bond is genuine or a performance.  More compelling, though, is Pedro Armendáriz’s gregarious turn as Bond’s Turkish liaison Kerim Bey.  Sans Felix Leiter, Kerim Bey is a great ally for Bond, friendly in peace and a potent partner when danger’s afoot.  The sense of mutual admiration and camaraderie between the two redeems any issue with Tatiana, as does the overshadowing effect of the potent villains in the film.

The whole of From Russia with Love is truly greater than the sum of its parts, though, because all the negative points the film scores with Bond’s inaction and Tatiana’s empty presence are outweighed by the generally rousing sense of adventure one gets throughout the film.  There are many classic set pieces here and nods toward the tongue-in-cheek style we’ve come to appreciate in the franchise.  It’s not without reason that the first three Bond films are regarded as the perfect trifecta, and I couldn’t be more excited to see that “James Bond will return” teaser at the end of the credits.

From Russia with Love is rated PG.  There is minimal blood, though a few fight scenes and dead bodies are seen.  Bond is depicted in bed with one woman, whose nude silhouette is glimpsed obliquely, and a riverside picnic features both lovers in period bathing suits; faint-of-heart viewers may be scandalized by two scenes of belly dancers. 

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of Goldfinger (1964), on March 7, 2013!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday at the Movies - February 4, 2013

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  I have quite a few reviews backed up in the queue, but I wanted to bump up a few more recent releases in the interest of topicality and relevance.  Also because I’m dying to talk about these two.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 (2013) – After a mostly successful first half, the conclusion to this animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s iconic “last” Batman story is effective, engaging, and highly entertaining.  Though the decision to break the film into two parts seems motivated only by sales and creates an odd break where you have to change discs midstream, the filmmakers have taken advantage of this extended format and given us full versions of the two major confrontations that conclude the book:  Batman’s last match with The Joker, and his face-off with Superman.  My thoughts about the voice cast remain unchanged:  as Batman, Weller is solid (but no Conroy), and Ariel Winter is a good choice for the spunky Carrie Kelley.  The two new cast members, though, are even better; Michael Emerson is a genuinely disturbing Joker whose affection for the Dark Knight never wavers from how creepy it’s meant to be, while Mark Valley’s Superman is the perfect aging Boy Scout, unwitting lapdog for “The Man.”  The word I can use to best describe this film is “unflinching” because it more than earns its PG-13 rating; consistent with Miller’s gritty original, Part 2 is relentlessly violent, especially when depicting Joker’s last murderous rampage.  It’s an accurate treatment of the source material, but the senseless violence may turn off some viewers; I suspect, though, that’s the point, since it helps us understand the difficult decision Batman has to make when he tells Joker, “No more.”  While I’d like to see other superheroes get this kind of treatment, Part 2 confirms that the DC’s animated studio knows what it’s doing.

The Hunger Games (2012) – First of all, thank heavens for Suzanne Collins for giving us a sophisticated and emotionally compelling franchise to dethrone Twilight.  And thank heavens for Gary Ross, too, whose adaptation of The Hunger Games is smart and surprisingly artistic without compromising what works about the book – namely, the survivalist bent of the story and its biting political satire.  Jennifer Lawrence is the epitome of “rising star” as Katniss Everdeen, who’s thrust into a televised death match meant to supply a repressed populace with bread and circuses from the Capitol of dystopic Panem.  The decision to eliminate the book’s first-person narration is a wise one, cinematically speaking, but as a result the film may come off as a little flat and emotionless for those who haven’t read the book (or maybe it doesn’t?).  Wisely, though, the film expands beyond Katniss’s singular perspective, allowing us to see more clearly the state of life in the Capitol:  decadence a la Lady Gaga (including Stanley Tucci as the Capitol’s delightfully flamboyant version of Larry King), political maneuvering orchestrated by Donald Sutherland’s restrained but smarmy President Snow, and an infectious performative posturing that begins to corrupt our protagonists (which should pay off in sequels, if I’m remembering the books correctly).  Ross brings an artistic touch to the film, which indulges the sentimentality of one contestant’s death in a haunting POV shot, while prizing orchestral score over chaotic battle sounds to emphasize the dehumanization of the Games.  It’s a shame that he’s not returning for the sequels, but a fantastic cast (let’s not forget Woody Harrelson as the begrudging inebriated mentor Haymitch) led by Lawrence at the top of her game suggest that the odds are ever in this franchise's favor – at least, more so than Twilight.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” Don’t forget that the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month is coming up on Thursday (hint, hint), and after that we’ll see you here next week!