Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fathers and Sons and "Star Wars"

While this is not a review (that will come this weekend), I do have some relevant thoughts and feelings about Star Wars: The Force Awakens I'd like to share.  Please bear with me, dear readers, for they are a bit personal.

Tomorrow is December 17th.  It is "The Day." There will be a new Star Wars movie on screens tomorrow night.  This is a day that nerds like me have been awaiting for years, a day we once thought we'd never see again.  It will be a day of excitement and happiness that more serious-minded folks just won't understand (to their detriment).  I am a small part of this enormous community because my father introduced me to it, and given tomorrow's date, and how Star Wars has (so far) been a story about fathers and sons, my dad will be with me tomorrow, even more so than he is every other day.

My dad took me and a friend to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977, at the then-known-as Camelot Twin theater in Orangeburg, South Carolina. I was a spoiled-rotten brat of nine years at the time, and actually didn't want to go to the movies that day for some reason that I honestly can't remember, but for some other mysterious reason that'll I'll never know, Dad was adamant that we go, and he was Dad, after all, so his vote ended the argument.  I don't think he even really had any idea of what we were going to see, but maybe he did.  Regardless, he was responsible for introducing the Star Wars universe to me, a universe of characters and stories that has been running rampant through my imagination ever since that summer afternoon thirty-eight years ago.

On May 19th, 1999, Episode I - The Phantom Menace debuted in theaters, and whatever opinions anyone may have about it or any of the other prequels are irrelevant to me right now, because that day was a day much like tomorrow will be.  People like me were stoked about a return to that galaxy far, far way, and I wanted to share that happiness with my dad.  I was an adult by that time, so it was my turn to insist that he accompany me to the movies, as to my mind, it was only appropriate that I take him to this new chapter in Star Wars history, just as he had taken me twenty-two years earlier.  Caught up in the moment as I was, I loved that first viewing of Episode I, but whatever doubts I may have had about Dad's level of interest were put to rest when, as we were leaving the theater, he asked "now that little kid was Luke's son, right?" Geez...

Tomorrow is also ten years to the day that my dad entered a hospital and never left.  Cancer had been doing its best to take him down for almost a year, and it was finally getting the upper hand.  I was the one on the "night shift" at his bedside when he gave up his mortal coil.  I had been listening to his Darth Vader-like breathing because of the ventilator that had been keeping him alive, until it was removed.  He hadn't spoken for several hours before passing, so he had no final words of wisdom for me, but I'm confident he was thinking of Mom, my sister and me.  We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day making his final arrangements, and much like Luke cremated his father's remains in the forest on Endor's moon, I scattered my father's ashes along the wooded banks of a river several days later.

It's hard to explain how much my mom, my sister and I have missed Dad this last decade.  Looking back through the years and recalling my childhood, I can now see how often I was the petulant Anakin-like child, spouting off at the mouth and doing stupid things, and how Dad was the wise, stoic Obi-Wan-figure, patiently trying to show me wisdom and steer me along the proper path. In the years since Dad's passing, my sister has often described him as our "Yoda," the wise elder who was always the calm in the center of whatever family storm we encountered. Oh, how right she is.

Sure, I'd have probably discovered Star Wars on my own if he hadn't dragged me to the movies that summer afternoon, but he DID drag me to the movies that summer afternoon.  It was he who pushed me in front of this spectacle that was so incredible in its day and changed how we all see movies forever, and even though he didn't think that afternoon trip to the movies was anything life-changing, it actually was, and I have him to thank for it.  Oh, he liked Star Wars himself just fine, as I'd find him watching the movies on VHS on the occasional Sunday afternoon through the years, but he was never as devout in his worship of George Lucas' creation as I was.  That's okay, though - Anakin Skywalker was never as pure in his devotion to the Force as his son was, either.  Maybe it's just a Father's job to show his Son the proper way, and mine certainly did, and as such I can directly trace my life-long love of Star Wars to him.

While my wife and I are sitting in the theater tomorrow night, hearing that blast of John Williams' B-flat fanfare and seeing that huge yellow logo zoom out into the starfield, I will be feeling all the geeky giddiness that will fill that auditorium.  How often do we get to have the experience of sharing such excitement and joy for something with several hundred perfect strangers?  If that ain't the best way to feel the Force binding the galaxy together, I don't know what is.

I just hope I can also catch a glimpse of Dad's "Force-Ghost" in the flickering projector-light.  It wouldn't feel right if my Dad wasn't with me for a new Star Wars flick.  If the Force is with me, then surely he will be, too. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The "Spectre" of Bond films Gone By...

I said in my review of Skyfall that I’ve never viewed the Daniel Craig Bond films as a strict continuation of the Bond franchise.  Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson stated that Casino Royale was a reboot of the property, and I’ve always taken them at their word and mentally separated these movies from their predecessors.  It took a while for me to find a place in my consciousness for the Craig-era films, though, as they most certainly don’t take place in the same world as the first twenty movies.  The now-four films of this series occupy a different place for me than do the six Connery films, the seven Moores or the four Brosnans (I sorta tack on the one Lazenby flick with the Connerys, though - it was that good).

While I have thoroughly enjoyed the Craig films (yes, even Quantum of Solace - it’s grown on me over the years), none of the first three has quite felt like a “Bond Movie” to me, although Casino Royale came pretty dang close.  Spectre, however, has the “feel” of a Bond movie for me.  It has the patterns we expect of a Bond movie - the pace, the rhythm.  The gun-barrel opening is here, for the first time in the Craig era.  There’s a journey by train (and one hell of a fight), a la From Russia, With Love; a mountaintop health retreat, a la On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; a 1948 Rolls Royce appears out of the desert, a la Goldfinger. All of these winks to Bond’s past (and a few others) pop in and out of the plot, but director Sam Mendes and his screenwriters, all back from Skyfall, wisely don’t shove them in our faces.  

The pre-title sequence is a seemingly one-take, Touch of Evil-ish scene through the streets of Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festivities, leading to a three-way fistfight in a helicopter above a crowded city square.  It seems there’s yet another shady criminal organization trying to take control of the world’s intelligence services, one with which Bond has been unwittingly crossing paths for three movies now, and this ring carved with an octopus is the clue Bond has been needing all this time. Through real-world Snowden-like dealings in the British government, the 00-programme is on the verge of being shut down, so Bond is once again on his own, off to Italy to infiltrate what seems to be the secret society’s annual shareholders meeting and have a fantastic car chase. Then off to Austria to collect the required female adventuring companion, one Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), and ultimately to Tangiers in pursuit of the everyone-says-he’s-dead Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, looking quite like Charles Gray and dressed remarkably like Donald Pleasence… hmmm...) in his secret desert hideout.  Now if all that doesn’t sound like a Bond flick, just what the heck would?

Spectre’s almost two-and-a-half hour running time didn’t phase me, but despite all of that screen time, there are characters that are sadly underdeveloped or underutilized.  Monica Bellucci, whose casting was much ballyhooed by the press as being novel, in that there was finally an age-appropriate actress as a “Bond Girl,” is in-and-out of the movie fairly quickly, and the sequence with her character almost so unnecessary to the plot that one might forget about her once it’s over. While M and Q (Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw, both fantastic) are involved in this story better and more entertainingly than any incarnation of those characters ever has been before, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is sadly underused, a disappointment after the potential for growing her and Bond’s relationship at the end of Skyfall.  Even the almost-obligatory scene where the primary baddie has Bond in his clutches falls prey to the spy-thriller trope of the monologue-ing villain, leading me to hear Seth Green in the back of my mind, screaming to Dr. Evil in the first Austin Powers movie to just pop the hero in the head so we could get on with things.

Spectre is not a letdown after Skyfall by any means, but it is a different movie, and one should keep that in my when buying his ticket. It is not as in-depth as Skyfall, but it is more fun, with Bond exhibiting a bit more of the dry humor we’ve loved from the character these last fifty years. Craig actually seems to be enjoying the character more than he ever has before, although you’d never suspect that from all the public griping about being Bond he’s doing to the press these days.  I once complained that his portrayal of the character was more James Bourne than James Bond, but the part has evolved in these last two movies, and he in the role, turning it into something more familiar, yet all his own at the same time.

If you go to this movie basing your expectations on your experience with Skyfall, you may be disappointed, so don’t fall into that line of thought. Spectre seems to be more about the tone of Bond’s world than the particulars of any story set in it.  It has a different pace than Skyfall because it tells a different story, about a character in a different place in his life, and yet it’s still exactly what you should expect of your Bond flicks - an extraordinarily entertaining action/fantasy thriller, and one you’d be glad you saw in a theater.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Some Fictional Character Named "Steve Jobs"

Steve Jobs was an asshole.  There’s no denying that.  I pity the gifted and talented people who worked with him and for him over the thirty-five years he raged across Silicon Valley.  There’s also no denying he helped change our world.  His vision drove those gifted and talented people to create things we had previously imagined only Dick Tracy or George Jetson could ever possess, and his genius led to ways of demonstrating to us how we couldn’t live without those things.  Any two-hour attempt to tell even a portion of the story of his life with any accuracy is doomed to failure, and it is with just this one caveat that I give Steve Jobs praise.

While the opening credits state the film is “based on the book by Walter Isaacson,” I wonder if anybody can get sued for such an arguably false statement, as there isn’t much more that book and this movie have in common than the title.  Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The American President, and gobs of episodes of "The West Wing") has crafted a fascinating three-act stage play depicting a character named “Steve Jobs” at three major events in Jobs’ life - the launch of the first Macintosh, the introduction of the NeXT workstation and the unveiling of the iMac.  His whip-smart, rapid-fire dialogue, combined with Danny Boyle’s (Slumdog Millionaire) deft direction and some world-class acting all combine into an incredibly gripping character study.

Despite Boyle’s not being the first choice to direct this film, it’s apparent he found the material fascinating, possibly appealing to his interest in theater direction.  His choice of utilizing different film formats (grainy 16-mm, standard 35-mm and crisp, high-def digital) for each of the movie’s three acts was brilliant, giving each period of time a distinctive look, evolving in quality over time, much as we hope the main character does.  He keeps his camera moving about his characters as they also move in the pre-opening curtain nervousness before these product unveilings, and keeps the movie’s rat-a-tat pace from ever feeling rushed.  

Sorkin’s screenplay doesn’t worry itself so much about any blow-by-blow depiction of actual events in Jobs’ life, instead using these three thirty-minute periods as the setting for showing how he interacted with the people in his life.  He omits Jobs’ acquisition and re-invention of Pixar Animation Studios, and how his transformation of that company became another of his contributions to our culture.  He omits Jobs’ happy marriage to Laurene Powell and their three children entirely.  He combines conversations from various times in Jobs’ career, reintroduces people whom he never saw again, and depicts the poor relationship Jobs had with his first daughter as lasting much longer than it actually did, all of these in the name of dramatic license.

Michael Fassbender gives a tour-de-force performance as this tortured egomaniac, struggling to balance his emotion, his vision and his ambition (his looking absolutely nothing like his subject actually helped me accept the movie as fiction). Kate Winslet is fantastic as Joanna Hoffman, Apple’s marketing head-honcho for so many years and, at least as depicted here, the only one who could herd Jobs in any direction, physical or emotional. Even Seth Rogen as the teddy-bear Steven Wozniak gives a strong performance of a character who was never as forceful in reality as he is depicted here (Wozniak has praised the movie, but admits that he and Jobs never had any conversation as confrontational as their final one shown in the third act; he wasn’t even present at the latter two events depicted in the movie).  

The emotional anchor of the story, however, is Jobs’ first daughter Lisa, played at three different ages by three wonderful young actresses (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine).  Sorkin uses this relationship’s evolution as a parallel for Jobs’ own evolution into a man who can finally admit that he is “poorly-made,” a startling admission from someone who is obsessed with perfection in his products.

To their credit, both Sorkin and Boyle have stated to the press that this film is not a “bio-pic,” choosing to call it an “impressionistic painting” instead, trying to capture the essence of Jobs and how he changed in the intervals between these three events in his life.  Melding and mashing instances of numerous people entering and exiting Jobs’ life at various times into these three events makes for a never-dull, almost rapid-fire depiction of a personality, not a person.  Watching this Steve Jobs-character gave me the impression I was seeing an evolution along the same lines as watching that of Charles Foster Kane, but moving a hell of a lot faster and reaching a happier conclusion.

Do not take my concerns with the movie’s accuracy, or lack thereof, as any displeasure with the finished product.  Steve Jobs is a wonderful piece of filmed fiction.  Any issues I have with this movie’s playing fast-and-loose with actual events are my own, and yet I can still accept this movie as the entertainment it is intended to be.  If you enjoy seeing wonderful actors depicting smart people talking intelligently and emotionally about the problems they have with the world and with each other, then you should see this film.  It will almost certainly be a Best Picture contender, and more than one cast member will be eyeing Oscar gold come next February.

However, If you want to know more about what the real Steve Jobs was like, you owe it to yourself to read Isaacson’s book, and even some others, afterwards.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Why "The Martian"? Because... Science!!!

Every time I sit down to do one of these essays about a film from Sir Ridley Scott, I feel like I’m obligated to inform the reader that he or she may need to take my opinions with a grain of salt.  My fandom of Sir Ridley’s work is well-documented, and I wouldn’t blame anybody if they said my objectivity in reviewing his movies may be questionable. I like to believe that I can be reasonable enough, however, to acknowledge that he’s had some “misses” over the last decade (cough… The Counselor… cough… Prometheus… cough... ), but even those misses have had things about them to love and/or admire, though, and those qualities keep me eagerly anticipating whatever he may do next.  

Thankfully, with The Martian, Sir Ridley has hit one out of the proverbial park, and has produced a film that certainly ranks right up alongside his best work.  It is a great combination of survival story (see a guy figure out how to grow potatoes in his own poop!), detective story (wait, that photo and this photo must mean somebody’s still moving down there!) and heart-tugging rescue story (can they catch the guy in a space suit moving faster than speeding train?).

The Martian is based on the debut novel from former software engineer Andy Weir, written out of his love for all things science, and his admiration of the men and women who practice it and utilize it to explore the universe. The story is of astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (played with great charm by Matt Damon), who is left for dead on the surface of Mars when his mission is scrubbed because of a violent storm.  Left with supplies that will only last six weeks, he must find a way to not only communicate with Earth and hope a rescue mission can be sent, but also to find a way to produce enough food, water and breathable air to last the three or more years it would take for that mission to save him.  

While there is certainly enough of the Robinson Crusoe-type stuff one would expect to find in such a story, there is enough of the subsequent activities on Earth depicted that the movie is not just a retread of Cast Away set in space.  NASA comes to realize Watney has survived and struggle to find a way to deal with that knowledge and plan a course of action.  Astronauts make plans, engineers at Jet Propulsion Labs struggle to implement them, NASA administrators work to make them happen, all under the pressure of knowing Watney may very well starve to death before they can get to him. These portions of the film are filled with characters just as interesting (in their own ways) as Watney, and the movie is fortunate to be filled with such wonderful actors as Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Pena in these roles, all of whom do fantastic jobs of creating believable characters with clear motivations, all with the seemingly-limited screen time they have.

Okay, sure, we all know Mars’ atmosphere is way too thin to actually produce a storm strong enough to endanger any manned mission there (or at least those of us who didn’t sleep through eleventh-grade science class know - you all know you you are…), but any enjoyment of a movie must require some suspension of disbelief, and this great story makes it easy for us to do so.   The genius of The Martian is its handling of what is, by its nature, the most technical of human endeavors and keeping it on a level the layman can not only understand, but enjoy.  What made the novel so incredibly interesting - it’s descriptions of the methods Watney used to engineer the solutions to his problems - could have been the very thing to doom the movie adaptation for general audiences, but Drew Goddard’s script does a fantastic job of feeding us just enough science-lingo to explain what Watney is doing without bogging us down in minutia (“I’ve done the math,” an engineer explains to an administrator at one point, “it checks out”).  The entire narrative thread of the movie is propelled by this problem-solving, which is a pretty novel thing for a movie in today’s age of the big-screen shoot-’em-up spectacle that relies on action set pieces to move from one plot point to another.  

The focus of the story, though, is Watney, and Matt Damon gives a us stellar performance.  He tends to be a “quiet” actor, steering clear of roles that would require him to be bombastic or over-the-top (I’m looking at you, Sean Penn…), and this role suits him well.  Characters he portrays tend to be more reserved and rely more on emotion and body language to convey ideas, and his spin on Mark Watney is dead-on perfect for that philosophy. Watney is what we all hope we could be in such a situation, and his performance of the character is pitch-perfect.  He combats the despair of his situation not only with rational thinking, but also with wit and humor, both cleverly shown to us by means of the video logs he keeps.  Despite being more physically alone than any human being ever has, he never totally loses hope, although he does come close a time or two, as I’m sure we all would.

As I mentioned earlier, Sir Ridley has had some less-than-stellar work in theaters over the last ten years (although even those films tend to improve when he re-cuts them for home video, which could easily be the subject of another lengthy essay), but no matter what one’s opinion may be about the narrative quality of any of those movies, I defy anyone to say that his movies aren’t always beautiful to watch.  The Martian is no exception. Utilizing the region of Jordan where parts of Lawrence of Arabia were shot more than fifty years ago, along with some help from post-production color-correction, he has created an incredibly believable Mars.  His directing skills are firing on all cylinders here, and his visual choices tell us as much as the script’s words do.  Time after time, he is moving us from lush, panoramic shot of beautiful Martian landscape, to an object presenting a challenge, to a facial expression telling us all we need to know about that challenge.

You may think the plot sounds as though is not terribly different from Cast Away or Robinson Crusoe or Gravity, but the character of Mark Watney IS original.  It’s easy to say that this is a Marooned-in-Space movie, and in a way it is, but it is so much more than that.  It is a story of personality.  It is a story of perseverance.  It is a story of how calm, rational thinking can eventually overcome most any problem.  It is a story of how even those calm, rational thinkers still have emotion and must factor that into their decisions.

...and it’s Ridley Scott’s best movie in a decade, so it’s got that going for it, too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Ex Machina" brings Frankenstein to the Modern Day

Years ago, I reviewed Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, and said that while I could not honestly say anything about the quality of the movie other than how excellently-made it was, I could not recommend it. Despite how wonderful a storyteller Spielberg is, I believed he was asking his audience to do something that I found to not only be impossible, but also immoral - to presume that Man can artificially replicate human emotion. In my review of that film, I explained how I firmly believe that, despite the scientific wonders of which Mankind is capable, there are some things that are beyond science, things such love and pain. I always find myself hindered when watching any story about “robots” interacting with humans, as it seems to me that almost without fail, the story is asking me to feel some sort of sympathy for the robot/artificial construct in question, and I can’t feel sympathy for such a construct any more than I could feel sympathy for a toaster, or a hedge trimmer, or my cell phone. No matter what task or action it performs, or how it seems to display some human reaction, nothing will change the fact that IT IS NOT REAL.

Thus, the dilemma I faced when watching Alex Garland’s Ex Machina recently ("Ex Machina" being derived from the old literary device "Deux ex Machina," literally "God from the Machine," meaning some unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation). We, the audience, are represented by young Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lower- to mid-level programmer at a mammoth search engine company (called “BlueBook,” but who are we kidding? It’s Google) who is selected, seemingly at random, to visit the mountain retreat/estate/laboratory of the company’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs) for a week. While there, he is to administer a Turing Test to an artificial intelligence construct Nathan has created, a female-shaped robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). 

What’s a “Turing Test,” you ask? It’s a scenario in which a computer or some other construct interacts with a human to a degree that the human is unable to determine that the computer is not human. Nathan is so firm in the belief that he has created what amounts to a new life form that he even tells Caleb straight up that Ava is artificial, confident that even with that knowledge, Caleb will come to accept her as indistinguishable from human. 

Nathan is portrayed as an almost total megalomaniac, freely admitting using his Google-like search engine database illegally as raw data for constructing his artificial intelligence. As if his desire to “become God” (his words) wasn’t evidence enough, his regaling Caleb with the young man’s fantasy of a bachelor pad stocked with alcohol, unlimited WiFi, a weight room and a silent, leggy Asian servant girl should seal the deal for you. He lectures Caleb on how his creation is not only wonderful, but is the next logical step in evolution, explaining how attraction and sexuality can be reduced to mere ones and zeros and programmed into a construct, resulting in reactions indistinguishable from “natural.” 

Garland’s clever screenplay is essentially a three-character stage play, with the majority of the film taking place in one location with the three speaking characters (and a non-speaking one). Over the course of the week Caleb is present, Nathan passive-aggressively steers Caleb into developing an emotional connection to Ava (well, perhaps not even all that passively). He watches the interview sessions between Caleb and Ava via video monitors, sessions during which, strangely, Caleb is the one sealed in a locked enclosure, not Ava. We already know Nathan is playing Caleb and Ava off one another, attempting to engender sympathy in each for the other, but during almost regular power outages, Ava begins trying to get Caleb to aid her in escaping her creator. Garland keeps us wondering whether it is Nathan playing Caleb off Ava, or if it’s Ava playing him off Nathan, or if both possibilities are true. 

I say that Caleb is the only sympathetic character in this movie, but perhaps I should be more specific and say that he is the only HUMAN character for whom to feel sympathy. The vibe of the scenes between Caleb and Ava are obviously to evoke feeling for the robotic construct, such that Caleb will deceive Nathan and help the machine “escape,” but I again remind the reader that I can’t fall for that trap. If anything, I found myself amazed at how someone as supposedly intelligent as Caleb, someone specifically trained in computer science and the application/manipulation of data, could so quickly fall in “love” with something showing its wires. While I imagine his fate at the end of the film was supposed to engender a different reaction from me, I couldn’t help but feel that the dum-dum sorta asked for it.

Alex Garland has written some very good science fiction movies, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, just to name a couple, and I reiterate that this screenplay makes for a fascinating, engrossing story. This movie being his directing debut, he shows some skill in guiding the three actors playing the lead roles, as they are all wonderful in conveying innocence, insanity and awareness, respectively.  

Oh, there are discussions galore to be had about the subtexts and undertones in this film - Nathan’s God-complex, the sexism in his conscious decision to make all of his constructs in the female form and have them serve him, Ava’s ultimate fate and the coming of the Technological Singularity, etc. I won’t delve into those, however, in an effort to keep this essay a reasonable length. I will say that I honestly don’t know if my inability to enjoy this movie will make me the exception or the rule. I can see how some may find it thoroughly enjoyable. I imagine lots of people, Sci-Fi fans and not-so-much fans, will find Ex Machina something to generate lots of deep thought afterwards. 

However, my intellect and my Faith prevent me from following stories such as this one to the emotional places I believe their tellers wish me to go. This may very well just be some personality flaw that only affects me and prevents me from enjoying such entertainment, and perhaps might not affect any other viewer at all. As Popeye so famously said, however, “I yam what I yam,” so I cannot in good conscience proclaim Ex Machina to be an enjoyable film. A well-made one, without question, and one that can I can admire, but not enjoy.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The (Gorgeous, but Empty-headed) Man From U.N.C.L.E.

There are times when I go to a movie knowing it will be something akin to dating a supermodel - it’ll look fantastic, but there really won’t be all that much beneath the surface.  Sure, we all want things in which we invest time and money to have deeper qualities than mere beauty, but who in his (or her) right mind would turn down the chance to look at Kate Upton for a couple of hours? It’s not like you’re committing your life to her, and Hell, there might even be a few laughs involved.
That allegory can more often than not be used to try to describe Guy Ritchie’s movies.  None of his films will ever take a place alongside other landmark pieces of cinema, but they’re pretty much all lovely to look at, and (with the exception of Swept Away, of course) can be pretty darn entertaining.  His Sherlock Holmes reboots from a few years back may have been rather soulless, but they sure looked good, and thankfully had two leading actors with great chemistry to provide witty banter that provided enough entertainment to gloss over the story’s flaws.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. follows this trend to the letter.
The movie (it really should be “MEN From U.N.C.L.E., shouldn’t it?) is, of course, a retread of the television series from the 1960s, and regrettably one that I have never-not-once had the opportunity to see.  It capitalized on the James Bond/Cold War-spy genre that was duplicated and ripped off by so many movie and television productions of the day, and made stars of Robert Vaughan and David McCallum.  Thankfully, this reincarnation avoids the trope of "updating" the source material and leaves the story set in the Cold War-60s and follows the joint CIA/KGB team of Napoleon Solo (Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (The Lone Ranger’s Armie Hammer) as they meet, team up, and attempt to prevent a criminal organization from producing an atomic bomb. They romp around East Berlin.  They romp around Rome.  They romp around the evil super-villain’s island lair.  They save the world.  Simple.  How complicated a plot do you really need? 
What makes Man From U.N.C.L.E. enjoyable is Ritchie’s obvious love for the style and look of early-60s cinema, which is glaringly obvious throughout the movie.  First and foremost, the muted colors and rainbow lens-flares, evoking the beginnings of the time when the majority of movies, not just the occasional spectacle picture, would be made in color.  The clipped dialogue spoken by the characters, the location shooting, and those oversized, yellow subtitles all harken back to the heyday of Fellini and Antonioni.  The music he uses throughout, the European pop of the day and Daniel Pemberton’s score, are great undertones to both the action and the scenes bridging the action. Ritchie’s editing pace is something of a trademark of his, as well, and he keeps this movie moving along at almost breakneck speed, never allowing the audience to linger on anything long enough to realize it may be missing something. Ritchie’s technical skills make this movie pleasant to watch, despite its shortcomings, which sadly are primarily found in the two things for which people primarily watch movies - the story and the actors.
Ritchie and his producer Lionel Wigram wrote the screenplay, and it oh-so-very much could’ve used another pass or two from a more competent screenwriter. Sure, the plot doesn’t NEED to be overly complicated, but I kept waiting for something that wasn’t stereotypical Our Man Flint-type stuff to happen, and it never did.  Even the villain’s ultimate fate was so underwhelming that I found myself expecting her to pop back up before the credits rolled, but no, that was actually her end…
Cavill plays Napoleon Solo as Chris Parnell played James Bond in Saturday Night Live skits, with all the lower jaw-jutting, smug smile-wearing, lady-killer strutting arrogance you would expect from someone making light of Sean Connery in his glory days.  Hammer doesn’t do all that much better, spitting out his something-akin-to-Russian accent with a bit more “Moose and Squirrel” than one can forgive, and the supposed sparks he shares with Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the East German defector they have along for the ride, cannot be taken seriously.  Vikander is the trio’s saving grace, being the only one seemingly having a real experience, and not one right out of a “Bullwinkle” cartoon.  Hugh Grant, as the British Intelligence operative who will become the team’s supervisor, is also great in his limited screen time, but when is Hugh Grant NOT fun to watch?
The overall effect of all this is to leave one with the impression Guy Ritchie merely staged a spy-themed GQ photo shoot, which is not in and of itself a bad thing.  As stated earlier, looking at pretty things can be entertaining.  Seeing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may even leave you with the same feeling you might have if you were ever so fortunate as to have that chance to date a supermodel - you may very well come to the end of it knowing you enjoyed it, and that it was beautiful, but you sure can’t remember a thing it had to say.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Ant-Man" isn’t short on fun

The “Heist” movie.  What an under-served film genre.  Some of the most exciting action/thrillers in film history fall under the “heist movie” heading. Most recently, folks would probably name the Clooney/Pitt Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve… and Thirteen) flicks, but there are also such entries as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, Michael Mann’s Heat, and the original Italian Job (although the remake wasn’t awful, either).  When Marvel’s chief of production Kevin Fiege announced all those months ago that Ant-Man would be Marvel’s “heist” movie, my interest was piqued.  Sure, it’s the next installment in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe series, so I’d have gotten in line and bought my ticket even if I knew it was going to just be two hours of Captain America and Falcon doing their laundry.  More casual moviegoers will probably hope for something a bit more dramatically involved, however.

So what’s it about, you ask?  Well, Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a professional thief in San Francisco, who winds up helping old, affluent scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) prevent his protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from doing terrible things with a special suit that allows the wearer to shrink down to a bug-size super-soldier. Pym has a suit of his own, which he gives to Lang. With the help of Pym’s envious daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, who, in a pageboy wig, doesn’t look a day over Barbara Hershey), Pym trains Lang to break into his lab, which Cross controls, dismantle the new suit and wipe out all the data and research necessary to produce more.  And that is mercifully that.

If you’re not aware of all the drama involved in bringing Ant-Man to the screen, that most likely means you’re not one to follow the ins and outs of the movie industry and probably don’t care.  Take my word for it, though - given how much went on in the eight years it took to get this movie to the big screen, it is amazing that the finished product is as good as it is. Director Peyton Reed (Down With Love, Bring It On) was a marvelous (no pun intended) choice to replace Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright, who left the project due to those infamous “creative difference” a mere weeks before filming was to begin.  Reed’s experience with placing a light-hearted, but not outright ridiculous tone on material proves we should never doubt Marvel’s decisions about what’s right for THEIR material.  The way I imagine Edgar Wright would’ve made this film would almost certainly have resulted in something that was more HIS and not Marvel’s, and we just can’t have that, now can we…?

What allows Ant-Man to flourish is that it largely turns its back on the solemnity and self-importance that occasionally hamper Marvel features and instead traffics in the same sort of freewheeling frivolity seen in last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy.  For that, thank the four screenwriters — Wright, Attack the Block's Joe Cornish, “Funny or Die”'s Adam McKay and Rudd himself — and their ability to include witticisms both verbal ("tales to astonish" is there for the comic fans) and visual (I loved -the bug zapper, and is that oversized toy with the happy face a nod to Ghostbusters?).  Rudd and a scene-stealing Michael Peña (as Lang's ex-con buddy) further contribute to the gee-whiz spirit, with Douglas and Lilly staking out most of the dramatic content.  Even Ant-Man’s encounter with a particular Avenger, while obviously shoehorned into the movie as a means of tying the movie to the larger Universe, was written and executed so well that it didn’t bother me or make me feel the plot had ground to a halt.

The effects are excellent in general, particularly the final showdown in a child’s bedroom.  The sequence is such a contrast to the world-sized, city-destroying spectacle climaxes of most superhero flicks that it must be applauded for merely trying it.  That the film pulls it off is even better. Ironically, only the film’s ants fail to completely convince.  Granted, they're not laughable creations on the order of the insects seen in the '70s shlock flick Empire of the Ants, but they're obvious enough as CGI to bug all but the most forgiving of Marvel devotees.

While I learned enough about all the protagonist characters to interest me and bring me to care about them, I admit I’d like to have seen a bit more development of the villain, Darren Cross.  I suppose in one sense, he’s the bad guy and we see that he’s a sicko, and that should be enough, but part of me wished for some more insight on why this guy was so intense in his dislike-bordering-on-hatred for his mentor/father-figure, and how on Earth he’d risen so far being so obvious a nut-job. The movie is called Ant-Man, though, not “Yellowjacket,” so if this is my only beef with the film, it must be a pretty trivial one.

The final result of all this is that I must say Marvel appears to be bulletproof. I certainly wouldn’t begin to think of placing Ant-Man on a list with such “heist” classics as I’ve listed earlier, but it doesn't do that label any disservice.  While that may be the mindset the brain-trust at Marvel used as inspiration for the movie’s tone, it’s not what actually resulted.  But that’s fine - what did result was an entry in an on-going film series that fits perfectly, yet can be viewed independently and enjoyed all by itself.  Ant-Man is funny, clever blast of a movie.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"Fifty Shades of Grey" leaves me wondering where the other forty-nine are…

I don’t quite know where to begin with this one.  Movies that result from cultural-phenomenon books present a bit of a quandary for a reviewer.  One is expected to review a film as a solitary entity, standing alone and free of whatever faults the source material may have had.  On the other hand, it’s unreasonable to expect a writer to express an issue with a part of such a movie without knowing that some reader somewhere will be shouting at the review “yeah, but in the book, blah, blah, blah, so of course, you don’t get it!!!” There’s no denying some story has existed before, and there are times when it must be acknowledged.  So, let’s get started with some acknowledging...

I even wonder how much a synopsis of the film is necessary, as the book was such a cultural happening three years ago that any reader is most likely already familiar with at least the basic premise.  We all know of the titillating aspects of the story, and how it opening on Valentine’s Day weekend is something of a sick joke on Universal’s part (is THIS the kind of tale you equate with your affection for whomever you hold dearest…?).  Millions of women, and a few men, I suppose, have lost themselves in the modern fairy tale-type story of young college grad Anastasia Steele and her surprising and unexpected “romance” with the cold, intimidating, dominating billionaire Christian Grey.  I’m sure there are quite a few babies out there that were born exactly nine months after their mothers finished the juicier parts of the first book.  Given how I have no intention of reading it, or the other two, I’ll just take the incredible sales figures of the books as testament to the story’s quality.  The movie is what we’re talking about today. 

I hesitate to call Fifty Shades of Grey a flawed film, because I find it hard to point to any individual thing in the movie and think that fixing it would have resulted in a better product.  Dakota Johnson conveys the naiveté of Anastasia believably, and while Jamie Dornan as the movie’s titular Grey character comes off as a bit of a cold fish, one could argue that might have been appropriate for the character. The dreary, rainy Seattle and other Washington State settings (locations all duplicated in the Hollywood-North that Vancouver, British Columbia has become) fit into the “gray” tone of the film, as with two hundred days of rain per year, I imagine there’s not much else for people up there to do besides stay indoors and beat on one another with whips and chains.  I even found director Sam(antha) Taylor-Johnson’s choices of where to place the rare instance of brighter color pretty impressive, the occasional red or blue punctuating some particular emotion in a given scene.  Even the “money” shots of the bondage/domination practices that everyone came to see are done as tastefully as they possibly could be, avoiding the NC-17 rating that would result if such a story were told in any realistic fashion.

The point where Fifty Shades of Grey fails can be placed before production even started - the story itself is a load of crap.  Let’s face it - it’s an open secret that the source material for this tale began its life as Twilight fan-fiction, and even after being reworked by its author into an original work, it still appeals to the same crowd as drugstore romance novels once did.  As such, when turned into something visual, its inadequacies are laid out for all to see. The poor-innocent-girl-meets-maddeningly-handsome-rich-gentleman story is as old as time, and there isn’t much variation on the theme here, with the possible exception of the addition of a ball-gag and dog collar or two… or three.  Waking up in opulent hotel rooms, having drivers whisk you off in black limousines to meet Mr. Handsome, who will fly you away in his helicopter… all of the stereotypical Cinderella-story tropes are here, and all details period-appropriate for the early 21st Century in the Tech Capital of the Pacific Northwest. 

The movie follows these two primary characters along what is supposed to be an evolution for both of them, but they are both such cardboard-cutouts that I couldn’t invest myself in them emotionally.  I believe the word “telecommunications” was uttered once at the beginning of the film to explain how this young hipster has more money than Bill Gates at the ripened, experienced age of twenty-seven, but that’s as far as we go in learning about how this young pup has all this “success” before most men have made it out of their first cubicle.  We got a little more explanation about Anastasia’s roots than Christian’s, but what little we learned about him was of how he is now, not his past.  We did learn he was adopted, but not much else after that.  

This is the point where I begin to hear all the readers out there screaming “you learn all that from what they say in the second book!” Fine and dandy, but I’m talking about this movie, not some book I’ll never read, and this movie didn’t tell me enough to make me care about these people, and if this dialogue was brought over from those books, then it should’ve been dumped for more life-like speech.  Lines which may work on the printed page of best-selling novels are sometimes cringe-worthy when actually heard spoken aloud (as Harrison Ford claims he once said to George Lucas on the set of Return of the Jedi, “you can write this shit, George, but you sure can’t SAY it!)

Taylor-Johnson only has one previous feature film to her directorial credit, 2009’s Nowhere Boy, a speculative-type study of the early life of John Lennon.  I have not seen this film, but I see on IMdB that it received widely-varied reviews, further evidence for me that Fifty Shades’ failings may not all be her fault.  As I mentioned earlier, I thought she did as good a job as she possibly could have with what she was assigned to do, although I wonder if she had the filmmaking wisdom to realize this material needed lots of reworking before any frame should have been shot, or was she so grateful for the job that she didn’t want to rock the boat and suggest changes to something that was already so wildly successful in another medium.  Alas, I may never know.

There possibly could be a very interesting story about the emotional damage that would lead someone into such deviant sexual habits, and how those personality shortcomings could destroy any potential for a fulfilling, healthy relationship… Oh, wait, there has been - it was Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.  THAT’S the movie this flick wishes it could be.