Monday, November 24, 2014

Monday at the Movies - November 24, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  Horror and mixed feelings this week.

You’re Next (2013) – Adam Wingard helmed one of the less offensive bits of The ABCs of Death, but his work on a feature film is a bit more successful, even if it leaves me a bit divided.  Sharni Vinson stars as Erin, a woman caught in the midst of a dysfunctional family when her boyfriend brings her home, only to find that the family is being targeted by a vicious group of masked home invaders.  In a blend of pitch-black comedy and revisionist horror, it turns out that Erin is far from helpless.  This Whedon-esque empowerment move is one of the film’s better angles; Vinson is a capable action heroine, and it ably picks up the slack when the home invasion horror beats drop off.  The film does make the mistake of taking off the masks, separating it from the infinitely more terrifying 2008 film The Strangers, though as the film evolves it steps away from the horror and closer to the dark comedy; if you had any doubts, the creative use of a blender in one killing should dispel any doubts.  Taken individually, I like the “strong female protagonist” approach, and self-aware black comedy is always welcome in more recent horror films to prevent the genre from going stale; added together, however, there’s a tonal imbalance that is very distracting.  As usual, I settled in with all the lights out, and that creeping dread set into my stomach as good horror does to me, but then the film gets us cheering for Erin without fully letting go of the jump moments.  Don’t get me wrong, I had a good time watching You’re Next, but I don’t think I’d call it a well-made movie.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week, but n the meantime don’t forget to have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

It’s been a good month for science – we landed on a comet, Big Hero 6 brought scientific imagination to the Disney crowd, and the Internet was able to withstand the gravitational pull of Kim Kardashian’s bottom.  But leave it to Christopher Nolan to outdo all of the above by treating us to what a true filmmaker can do with his own material and his own vision.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a top pilot turned farmer in the midst of a total collapse of the earth’s ecosystem.  Without giving away too much of the plot, Cooper is torn between his loyalty to his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and the initiative spearheaded by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), which promises hope for humanity among the stars.

Interstellar is, to be quite blunt about it, Inception meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, combining Kubrick’s science-fictional aesthetics with Nolan’s knack for tight and highly personal storytelling.  Where 2001 lacked humanity amid god-babies and monoliths, and where Inception delved deep into an individual’s dreamspace, Interstellar opens the scope considerably, beyond galaxies, while never forgetting the heart of the story is Cooper’s love for his family.  This, I think, will be the crux of Nolan’s oeuvre – high concept anchored by a deeply personal love story (especially, more recently, the love of a father for his children).

It’s been six years since Christopher Nolan’s last wholly original film – with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises in between, concluding his take on the mythic DC Comics character – and as much as I loved his Batman films I couldn’t be more excited that Nolan is doing his own work again.  By way of disclaimer, I do feel a bit like a devout churchgoer when I attend a Nolan film, seated quietly as the lights dim and expecting to receive some enlightenment or at least feel the touch of the divine.  Nolan hasn’t disappointed me yet, and I appreciate his emphasis on the cerebral.  Nolan is, for my money, one of only a handful of “directors to watch,” whose output has been consistently strong and who deliver a stable brand of films.

Interstellar is through and through a Christopher Nolan product, which is to say that it continues to develop his major themes, continues to push the envelope in terms of practical effects, and does so in a very smart way that resists the puzzle-box style of Inception while preserving that film’s investment in dense scientific concepts.  That is to say, Interstellar isn’t a rigorous intellectual workout like Inception, but it isn’t any less clever for being more temporally straightforward; Nolan is still interested in the relative experience of time, but it’s grounded more in Einstein than in Freud.  It is the high science-fiction followup to Inception that I wanted from Transcendence, but Wally Pfister – Nolan’s frequent cinematographer – gave us more an impression of than a exercise in Nolan’s brainy auteurism.  Interstellar doesn’t just look like a Nolan film (as Transcendence did); it thinks like one, and it even feels more deeply than Nolan films usually do.

The heart of the film – and indeed, it has one – comes from McConaughey’s love for his daughter, and The New Yorker couldn’t have been more right when they dubbed this stage of his career “The McConaissance.”  There’s a moment in the film where I thought to myself, “This is the same guy from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days?”  I wouldn’t be averse to seeing McConaughey join the troupe of Nolan staples, as Michael Caine has (and, to a lesser extent, Hathaway).  Nobody in the film is bad – Jessica Chastain continues to be reliably compelling in everything from Zero Dark Thirty to Mama, and John Lithgow does crotchety-old-man quite well.  McConaughey, though, is the emotional center of the film, perhaps a step in the evolution of a filmmaker who’s been accused of being a sort of cinematic Tin Man.

Interstellar is Nolan at his biggest and most expansive, his longest film to date but also his most emotional, leading to a few misty-eyed moments.  I don’t think it’s his best – Inception is still a masterpiece, and The Dark Knight is just consummate filmmaking – and it is a little bit long, though I struggle to see what could have been cut from a movie as tightly crafted as this one.  What it undeniably is, though, is another strong creation from a big-budget auteur with an unmistakable vision and a profound understanding of the value of cinematic spectacle.  Your eyes may mist, but they’ll be wide in astonishment.

Interstellar is rated PG-13 for “some intense perilous action and brief strong language.”  Like most Nolan movies, Interstellar is entirely bloodless; there are a few explosions, fistfights, and tidal waves, including one very successful jump moment.  Two F-bombs are heard, and there is a pervading sense of just how dangerous space travel is.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Interstellar Review Delayed

We could give you a big physics lesson, but the simple truth is that our Interstellar review was affected by the gravitational pull of a black hole.  It exists, out there in the relative future, but for those of us living in the present, we won't be able to see the effects of the review until Monday.

But hey, Neil deGrasse Tyson liked the movie, so that's got to count for something.  But his review has spoilers in it, so you'll have to wait for The Cinema King to take on Nolan's latest.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Big Hero 6 (2014)

My immediate reaction after seeing Big Hero 6 is that it feels very much like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Incredibles, combining the Pixar film’s wide-eyed appreciation for the superhero genre with Tyson’s ardent zeal for scientific innovation.  That’s a winning combination in my book, the latest victory for Disney’s animated line.

Inspired by his brother to attend San Fransokyo’s Institute of Technology, robotics savant Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) finds himself adrift in the wake of tragedy, wallowing in his grief until his brother’s greatest invention Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare robot, activates.  The two soon discover that Hiro’s microbots have been appropriated by a kabuki-masked menace, whose intentions are doubtless insidious.  To thwart “Mr. Kabuki” (as an incredulous cop describes him), Hiro and Baymax, along with other robotics geniuses, don suits of armor and become – as the title promises – big heroes.

As the first Marvel property adapted fully by Disney, Big Hero 6 isn’t connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though they have two things in common, the post-credits sequence and something that happens therein).  What this isn’t is all the bad things connoted by the term “Disneyfied.”  Indeed, after films like Frozen, I’m not sure that term even has much capital anymore; Disney and Pixar have been deconstructing the animated feature film for the past decade or so, and Big Hero 6 merely adds the superhero genre to the list of things that Disney can do well.  It’s not as cleverly deconstructive as The Incredibles, but it doesn’t have to be.

In place of genre self-awareness – of which there is some, in the character of Fred, who frequently shouts metafictional observations like, “This is our origin story!” – Big Hero 6 is heavily affective, swimming in the pathos we’ve come to expect from the House of Mouse.  There’s the aforementioned sense of wonder that pervades the picture, both in the superhero trappings and the awe at what science can do when shackled only by imagination.  But it’s that classically Disney combination of comic relief and tearjerking tugs at the heart.  There’s a moment at the very end of the film where, after feeling fairly certain I wasn’t going to tear up, the film hits a beat that makes my eyes misty even now.

More moviegoers will come away feeling the deep and memorable humor of the film, embodied solidly by the “huggable and non-threatening” marshmallow-like Baymax, whose perpetually blank face, doughy body, and simple voice provide most of the laughs in the film, to the point that Baymax is impossible to tear your eyes away from.  I throw the word “scene-stealer” around a lot on this blog, but I can’t remember the last time a character so thoroughly owned the film and tore it away from its lead.  Adsit’s voice is so perfect for this character, and he does amazingly emotive things with a lilting robotic inflection, finding humor in the moments when Baymax’s programming is confused.

While the other performances are fine, they’re more noteworthy in comparison to the highly complementary screenplay, which creates characters so deftly that it’s a wonder we even need the Plinkett test anymore.  In a quick one-scene introduction to the supporting characters, the film tells us precisely what their personalities are, their strengths and weaknesses.  Even the names, somewhat offbeat (Wasabi and Go-Go among them), fit quite well and make them easy to remember.

Big Hero 6 is a simple movie, not dull and predictable, but in the sense that the film is so streamlined and so sleek that the two hours pass by before you’ve had time to refill your popcorn.  It’s the kind of film that will leave you smiling throughout, and not just because Baymax is the most adorable thing ever.  There are shots in Big Hero 6 that are truly breathtaking, many of which feature the stunning San Fransokyo skyline.  What I take away from the film, though, is a breathless optimism and satisfaction at another well-told entry.

If this is what we can expect from the more direct partnerships between Disney and Marvel, I say bring on Big Hero 7: Baymax Boogaloo.

Big Hero 6 is rated PG “for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements.”  There’s a somewhat scary sequence near the middle in which (spoilers?) Baymax’s programming is overridden, but other than that there’s very little reason this couldn’t be a G.

Our unofficial “science at the movies” week continues on Thursday with The Cinema King’s take on Christopher Nolan’s latest – Interstellar.  Join us, won’t you?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Quantum of Solace (2008)

I don’t want to be “that guy,” someone who extrapolates a grandiose criticism from a very nitpicky observation, but Quantum of Solace is the only Bond film that doesn’t begin with the gun barrel sequence, which should be an immediate red flag that what we’re about to see is either not a Bond film or one that exists in a rough unfinished state, missing a few key components.  Obviously, Quantum of Solace is a case of the latter – an unfinished product with a puzzler for a plot and an apparent attempt to refuse to be the James Bond movie Casino Royale promised.

While pursuing the secret organization who killed his lover, James Bond (Daniel Craig) discovers that one of its members, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), is conspiring with a South American despot to stage a coup and dominate a key world resource.  Bond works to prevent this conspiracy, avenge his lover, and help Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) find her own peace – all while M (Judi Dench) struggles to contain an increasingly renegade Bond.

First of all, the plot of Quantum of Solace is exceptionally thin; Bond encounters the main plot only by coincidence, and he’s only following suspicion of wrongdoing for the bulk of the film.  I much prefer either the classic “mission briefing” mode of storytelling for Bond, or the slowly unraveling grand conspiracy.  Quantum is neither, a mingle-mangle of setpieces that almost feel as though they’re out of order (Bond flies to the desert to uncover Greene’s plot, goes back to the city to not confront Greene, then travels back to the desert).

In a Bond film, those setpieces can be everything, with great action sequences even partially redeeming a bad Bond film.  For me, that’s honestly what sets Quantum of Solace a notch below Die Another DayDie Another Day had that memorable duel sequence, a half-chase through a Cuban clinic, and an outlandish but still fun hovercraft fight.  Quantum’s action pieces begin promisingly enough, with a great car chase through Siena, but it quickly becomes apparent that director Marc Forster is not as deft with directing action as Martin Campbell was on Casino Royale.  Often Forster will cut away from the action at its most interesting, as when a plane stunt occurs largely behind a mountain.  It’s artistic editing that reminds us how good Forster was in Stranger Than Fiction but how out-of-place he seems in a big-budget franchise.

The willful cutting of the camera’s gaze away from the action is just one of the places where Quantum stubbornly refuses to be a Bond film, completely missing the memo from Casino Royale.  In Casino Royale, Martin Campbell and the crew showed us how to update Bond while staying true to the (let’s be honest here) formula of the franchise – disfigured villain, suave (super)hero, sultry siren with a curious name, big-stakes plot.  Casino Royale added in “psychological realism,” shook it up (never stirred), and turned out an invigorating fresh approach to Bond.  Quantum seems to have taken the lesson as “be as un-Bond as possible.”  Dominic Greene isn’t disfigured beyond his small stature, which is probably meant as a comment on the banality of evil, but it doesn’t work when the script asks him to become a physical threat to Bond.  Gemma Arterton’s turn as Agent Fields feels like a bad gag when she refuses to tell Bond her first name, which the credits reveal is “Strawberry” – it’s a wonderful gag with a wink toward outlandish predecessors like Pussy Galore and Xenia Onatopp, but the movie dangles it in front of us like a cat toy on a string.

The best material in Quantum, it seems, is elsewhere – off camera, in the credits, or nestled in the viewer’s imagination.  The saddest thing about the film is its unlived potential, glimmers of what the follow-up to Casino Royale should have been; there are disparate plot threads involving a Bond driven mad by revenge, Felix Leiter’s attempt to work against a corrupt CIA, M’s begrudging willingness to trust Bond, and the parallels between Bond and Camille’s quest for vengeance – but these are presented in mere outline form, painted with the broadest of strokes.  Any one of these could have made a compelling backbone to the second in a new era of James Bond, but crumpled together as they are, the whole ends up being so much less than the sum of its parts.

Let’s be fair – Quantum of Solace was damaged by the 2007-2008 Writers’ Strike.  Forster and Craig are on record as saying that they personally tuned up the screenplay between takes, and that almost certainly accounts for the lack of cohesion or semblance of narrative structure.  Essentially, it’s like taking a blacksmith to task for not being a computer engineer – to which I have to respond, however, that it would have been better to wait for Steve Jobs.  Quantum would have benefited immeasurably from a professional writer’s eye, and I would rather have waited for a true successor to Casino Royale.  What we get instead is a Godfather III, more epilogue than proper sequel.

Quantum of Solace fortunately ends with one of its best sequences, in which Bond finally confronts the double agent responsible for his lover’s death and (minor spoilers) steadfastly refuses to kill him.  He and M have a semi-touching conversation about revenge before she asks him to return to the agency.  “I never left,” he answers, trudging away alone in the snowfall.  If Casino Royale ended with the promise that James Bond truly was back, Quantum of Solace at least accounts for its own missteps in this moment by reassuring us that Bond hasn’t gone anywhere and is perhaps finally ready to inherit the mantle suggested by Casino Royale.

Of course, we know that’s what ended up happening.  Consider Quantum a speedbump on the road to Skyfall.

Quantum of Solace is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content.”  The violence isn’t quite bloody, but especially in the last sequence you can really feel some of the more visceral bits.  It’s not as intense as Casino Royale, though.  Aside from one brief encounter, Bond doesn’t sleep with the Bond girl, and any other sexual encounters are only mentioned, not shown, though there is an attempted sexual assault.

We’ve reached the end of a two-year journey through the Bond canon, but don’t hang up your tuxedos just yet – James Bond and The Cinema King will return with a special bonus feature on December 7, 2014!  (And you don’t have to wait until then to read a review of Skyfall – we did that ages ago.)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Monday at the Movies - November 3, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  We haven’t reviewed a musical around these parts, so let’s give it a go.

Rent (2005) – Let’s begin by separating the film from the stage play (which I’ve never seen) and take the movie adaptation on its own merits.  I feel about Rent very much the same way I felt about the last musical I reviewed, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge – on a technical level, I see that the moving parts work, and there are some fine performers clearly invested in the material, but from an audience perspective both Moulin Rouge and Rent felt very empty.  I’ll qualify this review by quoting my Moulin Rouge review – I don’t think I’m the audience for this film – but as a reviewer that doesn’t let the movie off the hook.  Rent feels empty because it seems to strip away a lot of what makes the characters individually definable (see the Plinkett test) and reduces a lot of their motivations to “I’ve got problems, man, and life is tough.”  A few deleted scenes really draw this out, especially with the character of Mark, who seems hollow in the film proper but has a much fuller characterization when he gets to, for lack of a better term, sing about his feelings.  I already have a tenuous relationship with musicals – I really like exuberantly dumb musicals like High School Musical or tonally thick ones like Sweeney Todd – so I’m certain that Rent isn’t for me.  Maybe if I’d come to it with the stage play in mind:  I get the strong sense that this particular Rent is targeted to those with the stage play near and dear at heart.  For those of us newcomers, however, the effect is much closer to wondering what all the fuss is about.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week for reviews of Big Hero 6 and Interstellar, and this Friday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month... The Cinema King has a full dance card, so be sure to subscribe – you won’t want to miss a moment!