Monday, August 26, 2013

The World's End (2013)

With The World’s End, we close the door on Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy,” a thematic trio held together by blood and ice cream, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as some fun genre-bending madcap antics.  Surprisingly earnest but never forgetting to have loads of fun with the sci-fi satire, The World’s End is a worthy successor to the inspired Shaun of the Dead and its clever brother Hot Fuzz.

The World’s End finds Gary King (Pegg) “puttin’ the band back together” in an attempt to recreate an abortive pub crawl twenty years earlier, though he encounters resistance from his old mates (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan), who have all grown up and left their childish ways behind them.  Gary’s quest is complicated when he discovers that many of his hometown’s residents have been replaced by alien robot doppelgangers.

I’ll admit to a certain degree of apprehension about this movie after Wright’s last directorial outing, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which had the fun quotient I had come to expect but literalized its video-game roots with a distancing lack of irony.  But in Wright’s filmic homecoming (he’s been making movies with Pegg & Frost for almost ten years, and their Spaced collaboration on TV goes back even further), he recovers his unique directorial voice with a project that’s equal parts heartwarming and hilarious.

The key is Wright’s deft ability (with cowriter Pegg) to navigate tonal shifts without compromising his film’s own unique identity.  In a summer blockbuster season that’s seen empty characterization (Pacific Rim) and tonally schizophrenic tilt-a-whirls (Kick-Ass 2), it’s a relief to see a film like The World’s End, which manages to juggle satire, spoof, comedy, nostalgia, genuine science-fiction, and moving character drama all in one bundle.  As scene-stealers go, it’s hard to do better than Eddie Marsan’s turn as Peter Page, who handles his sad sack role with aplomb; in a key bathetic monologue, he reveals his feelings of finitude, but his giddy one-liners fit perfectly within the bounds of his character because the film takes the time to get us to care about him before making him narratively significant.

It’s a weird, almost perfunctory moment when the film switches from beer-guzzling comedy to ooky sci-fi, as though Wright remembered halfway through editing that he needed to satirize a film genre as he had in Shaun and Fuzz.  But it’s not a requirement that impinges on the film; indeed, Wright’s greatest success is convincing us to care about his characters long before asking us to follow them on an insane journey.  He’s given an assist by some really capable performances; Pegg and Frost switch roles for this film, with Pegg as the loser and Frost as the blue-collar worker, and it’s a role reversal that works better than expected, allowing each actor to remain fresh in a new role.

It doesn’t quite pass the Bechdel test, but The World’s End manages to be tons of fun with an equal serving of well-written heart.  There are plenty of winks and nods to devotees of the genre or just to Cornetto Trilogy aficionados (the ice cream appears, as does the fence), but even taken solely on its own The World’s End is really just a solid movie all the way around.  It does everything a movie ought to do – entertain, amuse, move, provoke – and is a much finer cap to the summer movie season than I was expecting.  If this is how the world ends, bring on the afterlife.

The World’s End is rated R for “pervasive language including sexual references.”  You know the drill:  it’s comparable to Shaun and Fuzz in quantity of F- and C-bombs dropped.  The blood in this one is almost entirely blue (literally, the color blue) and played for comic effect.  We see a man’s bare buttocks once, and the men describe offbeat sexual acts in-depth (the “marmalade sandwich” – two blondes and a redhead – being a tame example).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

I was a big fan of Matthew Vaughn’s film Kick-Ass, even going so far as to believe (even if I didn’t admit it in my own review) that it improved on the Millar/Romita, Jr. comic book in many ways.  Jeff Wadlow’s Kick-Ass 2, however, misses the bar set by both its filmic and comic predecessors, never failing outright but ending up as a disappointing break from real life.

After kickstarting the real-world superhero trend, Dave “Kick-Ass” Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) joins a team of superheroes – Justice Forever – while trying to convince his fellow hero Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) to suit up once more to help protect their city.  Hit-Girl is no more, though; instead, Mindy Macready is trying to make a normal life for herself as a high school freshman.  Meanwhile, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the supervillain formerly known as Red Mist, rebrands himself in a quest to avenge his father and kill Kick-Ass.

Sometime before arriving in theaters, Kick-Ass 2 dropped its subtitle “Balls to the Wall,” and after viewing the film itself it isn’t hard to see why.  That subtitle promises a relentless go-for-broke mentality which strives to top the already-exuberant first film, but what you actually get with Kick-Ass 2 is a tennis match of tonal inconsistencies, volleying between grim-n-gritty and Frat Pack humor, between dark comedy and unironic maudlin melodrama.  Any one of these might have made for a decent film, but the movie’s confusion about its own tone leads to a film that distances more than diverts its audience.  Matthew Vaughn managed to pull off the tonal shifts in Kick-Ass, but it seems Wadlow isn’t as deft a filmmaker.

A quick word about the source material:  Kick-Ass 2, by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., is stomach-churning, revoltingly violent, and that’s entirely the point.  Millar’s work on Kick-Ass 2 is uncompromising in a way that makes most readers uncomfortable (his unsettling comments equating rape with decapitation notwithstanding), but again it’s not purposeless.  By softening many of the more brutal beats from the comic book, the film ends up feeling like it’s continually undercutting itself.  Case in point:  Chris D’Amico, reduced from a genuinely evil monster to a lame attempt at comic relief whose villainous pursuits are impossible to take seriously because of his nasal whines and myriad impotencies. It’s a shame; Mintz-Plasse pulls off a few great moments of real darkness, but it’s like the editors spliced in a whole other feature alongside the one where McLovin plays the villain.

Moretz still steals the show as the foul-mouthed juvenile vigilante Hit-Girl, her purple wig and one-liners bespeaking her inbred passion for the superhero game, but there’s something just a little bit off about her performance.  Maybe it’s that she’s noticeably aged from the pint-sized terror of the first film, maybe it’s the film’s clumsy attempt to shoehorn her into a Mean Girls subplot (which works better in the comic book without resorting to icky hormones and projectile vomiting), or maybe it’s just that her heart doesn’t seem as into the project as it did; ditto for Johnson-Taylor, who’s almost the very definition of phoning it in, even when his character is supposed to be devastated.

Indeed, the only actor in the film who doesn’t seem bored or confused is Jim Carrey, in a surprisingly fun turn as Colonel Stars and Stripes, Justice Forever’s ostensible chairman.  I didn’t recognize Carrey in the early trailers, and that level of immersion in the character persists in his small role here.  You’ll want more of the Colonel from the film, in part because he’s the only consistent character in the film and in part because he lives up to the film’s attempt at a motto:  “Try to have fun; otherwise, what’s the point?” 

But the biggest problem with the film isn’t the violence that led Carrey to disavow the film in public (though some of the CGI effects need disowning).  In the final analysis, Kick-Ass 2 just doesn’t work because it doesn’t allow itself to go for broke.  Instead, it holds back and undercuts itself at every turn until all that’s left standing is an unengaging experience that just doesn’t kick as much ass as it needs to.  Never thought I’d say this, but this film really needs Nicolas Cage (a shining light in the first, conspicuously absent here).

Kick-Ass 2 is rated R for “strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and brief nudity.”  This film is as violent as the first one, blood sprays and amputations abounding.  There are plenty of F-, C-, and other bombs dropped by the characters (including one in his own name), two prostitutes are seen topless for a few seconds, and other characters talk about sexual acts in vulgar and unflinching detail.  Please don’t do what the people sitting a few rows behind me did: leave your three-year-old at home.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Heat (2013)

Though she’d been around for a while, Melissa McCarthy was introduced to most filmgoers in 2011’s Bridesmaids.  Ostensibly the breakout star of the piece, it’s no surprise that McCarthy reteamed with director Paul Feig for a film that shows off her comedic talents, excelling in the delivery even if the film itself isn’t terribly innovative.

In pursuit of a drug kingpin and a promotion, fastidious FBI Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) heads to Boston, where she falls in with the abrasive local police officer Shannon Mullins (McCarthy).  What follows is your standard polar-opposites comedy, juxtaposing the straight-laced Ashburn with Mullins’s more freeform approach, with value added by the fact that Mullins comes from the wrong side of the tracks (including her delightfully shouty mother, played by Jane Curtin).

Anyone who’s seen the trailers already knows whether this is their kind of movie or not, because the trailers do a really solid job capturing the spirit and the tone of this movie – a few explosions and gunfights here and there, with the emphasis instead on rapid-fire banter between Bullock’s civility and McCarthy’s profanity.  The film doesn’t give us much new material to appreciate; for example, once we learn that the top drug lord has never been photographed, you just know it’s someone in the film biding time for that third act reveal.

But what the film lacks in innovation, it makes up in execution.  Though Bullock gets top billing, the film is undeniably McCarthy’s – she speaks the title of the film, she holds your attention rapt, and (potential spoiler warning?) Ashburn becomes more Mullins by the end of the film in an inversion of our expectation that Ashburn will compel Mullins to become more professional.  McCarthy is loud, brash, and unapologetic, perhaps even what might happen to her Bridesmaids character after a life with the air marshal.  Symptomatic of the #yolo zeitgeist, The Heat explores the value in cutting loose and living dangerously, either by leftover cheese sandwich or by grenade (both of which Mullins keeps in her refrigerator).

The real treat in The Heat is the chemistry between Bullock and McCarthy, who pull off the opposing forces of their characters without feeling like they’ve been thrown together by a random plot generator.  Bullock has refined this hard-nosed sweet-yet-stern persona and brings all that to bear in Sarah Ashburn while still imbuing her with just enough pathos (or is the cat subplot even bathetic?).  Better, her epiphany at the end of the film develops organically out of her relationship with McCarthy, whose gentle-giant approach endears while it entertains.  Scenes like the Spanx encounter in a club bathroom or the third-story interrogation work because of how well Bullock and McCarthy play off each other.

Enough said about how funny McCarthy is in The Heat.  It’s a vehicle driven entirely by her, and if you’re looking for a few laughs you may as well go along for the ride.

The Heat is rated R for “pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence.”  F-bombs and actually quite brutal dialogue pervade the film, as do a surprising number of bloody gunshots to the head (I can recall two) and stabbings.  Additionally, the more PC moviegoers may be uncomfortable with the number of jokes at the expense of an albino character.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

Six times in the past thirteen years, Hugh Jackman has snikt’d his way into theaters as Wolverine, and now that he’s finally starred in an adaptation of a much-loved plotline from the comics – Logan goes to Japan – I feel even better about naming Jackman’s performance(s) as the #4 Comic Book Movie MomentThe Wolverine is a film that takes a written-in-the-stars casting choice, throws it in a bold new direction, and still manages to appease Joe Popcorn.

After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan (Jackman) has gone into self-imposed exile, retiring his Wolverine identity out of fear and denial at the prospect of killing another loved one; as it is, he’s haunted by visions of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom he killed to save the world.  But after the deadly clairvoyant Yukio (Rila Fukushima) tracks him down so that her employer Yashida can thank Logan for saving him at Nagasaki, Wolverine finds himself without his healing powers as he protects Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from the assassins working for Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

Most of the positive reviews for this film have already noted the compelling emphasis on character exploration over plot-driven mutant hijinks, so I’ll just add myself to that chorus and say that The Wolverine does well to stand on its star’s strapping shoulders.  Jackman handles Logan’s grief well, maintaining throughout some of the quintessential Wolverine characteristics (his berserker rage and his hunter’s humor, mostly).  Indeed, it’s to Jackman’s credit that the film can oscillate between moments of despair and the high-octane X-action we expect from the X-Men franchise.

It’s worth noting that Fukushima and Okamoto are both newcomers to the acting game, though both perform quite well – especially Fukushima who, despite a few unconvincing line readings, manages to hold her own opposite powerhouse Jackman and in the film’s more demanding action sequences.  The only piece that never quite fits is Khodchenkova’s Viper, whose theatrical villainy feels more at home in The Last Stand than The Wolverine; while she doesn’t do anything wrong per se, she’d be more appropriate in a Technicolor comic book film, and I would have appreciated a subtler villain in her place here.

Director James Mangold, of 3:10 to Yuma fame, earns some of the credit for the film’s success with his engaging cinematographic treatments of Japan, shots that would look beautiful in any context without pandering to preconceptions of what stereotypical Japan “ought to” look like.  Mangold creates an appealing topography, from bullet trains and “love hotels” to funeral pagodas and corporate bases.  Mangold keeps a methodical pace through the film, keeping the plot progressing forward while stepping through character moments like a Noh play – slowly but precisely.

Simultaneously, Mangold knows when to let The Wolverine off the leash and treat audiences to the action sequences without which this wouldn’t feel like a superhero movie.  The fight atop the bullet train recalls Spider-Man 2 by way of The Matrix, and the film’s third act – which some have critiqued as being inappropriately blockbuster in such a nuanced character-driven piece – manages to weave the family drama plot elements into the ongoing mutant tapestry quite well.

Be sure to stay through the credits for another nod to that aforementioned tapestry – with a few cameos that are too swell to spoil – but even taken as a standalone entity and not as an installment in an ongoing franchise, The Wolverine is a solid alternative superhero piece that places more emphasis on protagonist than on punching.  It’s almost Superman Returns done right, a more thoughtful take on the superhero’s place in the world without relying on the Donner formula of escalating super-feats.  It’s my hope that films The Wolverine become more frequent rather than novelty items in the genre – just as long as he gets to snikt his way out of a snafu or two.

The Wolverine is rated PG-13 for “sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language.”  There’s a fair bit of gunplay and a lot of hack-and-slash with Wolvie’s claws, though most of it is pulled off without much blood being shown.  Wolverine is shown in bed with two different women (only one of whom is real, though sex is implied in both cases) while another man parties with two underwear-clad ladies; finally, Jackman gets to drop his contractual one F-bomb near the end.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Live and Let Die (1973)

Replacing Sean Connery is a tall order; George Lazenby already tried it, with mostly successful results.  With Live and Let Die, Roger Moore – fresh off a comparable turn as Simon Templar in The Saint – steps into those big shoes in a Bond film that’s quite Seventies, quite American, and quite different from what we’ve seen thus far.  But is it any good?  The verdict in brief is that the film itself isn’t a fantastic first entry for Moore, though he acquits himself well in the role.

A series of mysterious murders puts Bond, James Bond (Moore) on the trail of Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) and the heroin kingpin Mr. Big from Harlem to the voodoo swamps of Louisiana.  When Bond falls in with the virginal fortuneteller Solitaire (Jane Seymour), he becomes enmeshed in the gang’s activities and must face a gauntlet of unusual henchmen before coming face-to-face with Mr. Big himself.

I’ve said that the best Bond films are the ones where Bond has to piece together clues in order to uncover the big mastermind behind the plot, but there’s something quite maddening about how long it takes for Bond to discover the big twist – (spoiler warning) that Dr. Kananga is Mr. Big.  It’s barely a revelation, concealed by some poor prosthetics and an unconvincing voice modulation, and the way in which the film quickly disposes of the big reveal makes me wonder why it’s even in the plot at all.  I’d much rather have spent more time on Mr. Big’s oddball henchmen – the hoarse-voiced Whisper, the prosthetic-clawed Tee Hee, and the voodoo Loa Baron Samedi (who may or may not be immortal).  These characters are reduced to window dressing by the film, which unfortunately never gives them the chance to shine as Goldfinger did for Oddjob.

As the resident Bond girl, Jane Seymour is naïve yet sexy, a compelling love interest for the sexually aggressive Bond (more on that later) with a wit about her that has more than a little something to do with her powers of clairvoyance (which, like Samedi’s resurrection, the film wisely accepts without question).  It’s entirely distracting, though, that Seymour is – like so many of her predecessors – dubbed over by Nikki van der Zyl; the result is that Seymour sounds just like Ursula Andress from Dr. No, and I can’t for the life of me understand this casting decision.  After all, Seymour can speak English relatively well.

But enough bandying about.  What to make of Roger Moore, the newest Bond in our rewatch (and, in hindsight, the longest serving 007)?  The good news is that he steps into the role rather seamlessly; his Bond has echoes of Connery and smartly so, while he picks up the sophistication of George Lazenby but without the milquetoast.  His sexual prowess is a bit more refined than Connery’s rougher edges, such that he doesn’t even use his hands to unzip one lady’s nightie, and his seduction of Solitaire is so calculated you can almost hear Connery mumbling, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  But even in the action sequences, amid the marring effect of too much comic relief, Moore seems at home as the world’s top secret agent – on foot, in a boat, in a car.

But ultimately the film wears its 1973 birthday on its sleeve with a bit too much pride as to how badly dated it is.  Forget Blaxploitation – this is Bondsploitation, and the two genres don’t mix as well as that shaken-not-stirred.  But with a promising new lead behind the wheel of the proverbial Aston Martin, perhaps the best is yet to be – let this one die so that Bond can live.

Live and Let Die is rated PG.  Quite tame by Bond standards thus far in the canon, the film depicts a fair bit of gunplay, sans blood, though one man explodes (again, without blood and with laughable special effects).  Bond courts three lasses, though none show anything immodest.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) on September 7, 2013!

Monday, August 5, 2013

2 Guns (2013)

It’s hard to say just which of the many guns – both literal and colloquial – are referenced in the title of 2 Guns, but there should be no doubt that Denzel Washington accounts for at least one of them (and if only one, then at least a double-barreled one).  Indeed, without Denzel, I can safely say that 2 Guns would lose a lot of its fun and thereby expose its own flaws.

Posing as small-time crooks with big league connections, DEA Agent Bobby “Beans” Trench (Denzel Washington) and NCIS Agent Michael Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) pull off a surprisingly solid bank robbery and boost $40 million more than they were expecting.  But the two quickly learn that not only have they double-crossed each other by working for rival federal agencies but that they’ve also been double-crossed themselves by their own superiors.  Worse yet, the drug lord they thought they were robbing (Edward James Olmos) and the money’s true owner (Bill Paxton) are both gunning for our heroes.

I’ll say something I almost never say for a movie that I ultimately liked:  2 Guns is a little more complicated than it needs to be.  I know, I know; I’m almost always the guy who wants films to be more complex (cf. Pacific Rim).  But during the film there were moments where the intricate plot meanderings left me behind for a breath, even though the end results were a bit predictable.  Spoiler free translation:  I knew that certain characters would do things, but I wasn’t quite clear on why.  (It’s mostly a question of sequence, of when exactly in the past a few third-act revelations of past misdeeds actually occurred.  Again, without spoiling anything, when did people decide to do certain things?)

But the barest skeleton of the plot – double agents double-crossed – is enough on which to hang an otherwise engaging film, and 2 Guns is at its best when it shows Trench and Stigman putting their plans into action, in scenes that are as fun as they are explosive.  Director Baltasar Kormákur wisely keeps a sense of humor about the proceedings, allowing the elevated absurdity to come to life amid a series of incredibly charismatic performances.

As the villains of the piece, Olmos and Paxton are scenery-noshers in the highest degree, doing “comic book baddie” (yes, adapted from a graphic novel!) without the negative connotations of the term.  Olmos’s is the stronger of the two, in part because I’m already biased (loved him since Stand and Deliver) and also because I would have preferred something a little less showy than Paxton’s tough Texan turned up to eleven.  Peeking in as the handlers, Paula Patton and James Marsden do well enough, though the script doesn’t ask much from them; Marsden does, however, step far enough out of his squeaky-clean stereotype (literalized in both Hairspray and Enchanted) to impress.

But the film really and truly succeeds, even conceals some of its shortcomings that are visible more in retrospect than in the moment, by virtue of the exceptionally disarming performances of Wahlberg and especially Washington.  Wahlberg is still playing a strong mostly-wise guy (a la The Other Guys, minus the comedic broad strokes), though his greatest strength is in keeping pace with Washington, who’s made a career out of stealing movies through sheer power of ethos.  Washington remains fresh, fun, and fascinating, bringing new life to another version of the quintessential Denzel Washington character (that quick-talking guaranteeing charmer straddling the line of the law).

Look, I tried to write a review of this film but really all I wanted to do was write a love letter to Denzel Washington.  So I’ll close by saying that Denzel is, here as always, far and away worth the price of admission, elevating what might have been a C-grade film into at least a high B solely by his presence – which, unlike most actors with so-called “presence,” actually counts for a whole lot.

2 Guns is rated R for “violence throughout, language and brief nudity.”  There’s a lot of bloody gunplay and a generous amount of profanity which includes a good helping of F-bombs.  Additionally, we briefly see a topless woman early in the film (between this and Flight, is that a new rider in Denzel’s contract?).

Don’t change that dial, loyal readers, because Wednesday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month... and you all know what that means by now!