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!