Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity

One of the joys of moviegoing is to feel transported to a place you've never been.

Gravity delivers this joy, abundantly.

From the first frame until the just-before-last, the movie puts its audience in orbit around the Earth. Theoretically, movies have depicted this setting before. But once you see Gravity, you realize they've never done it right.

They have now.

"They" consists of writer/director Alfonso Cuaron, crazy-good cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, about two hundred absurdly skilled sound and visual people, and two pretty actors.


The movie starts us in space, where astronauts George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are performing routine maneuvers around the fictional space shuttle Explorer.

Things take a fictionally disastrous turn when space debris reduces the Explorer to swiss cheese, leaving Bullock and Clooney in search of a new ride home.

This glib synopsis does little justice to the shockingly brutal and cosmically impartial nature of the action.

The movie's great achievement is to render motion and momentum in space in a way that is both faithful to reality and also compelling on screen -- two qualities that are sometimes mutually exclusive.

Cuaron's trick is to give his realistic movie universe a cinematic plot. Every new ship or space station our girl Sandra stumbles upon gets ripped into horrific shreds by that dastardly space debris nearly as soon as Sandra stumbles upon it.

This keeps the action moving briskly and along lines Hollywood audiences are comfortable with, while at the same time operating in a completely unfamiliar world: the real one.

In Gravity, a spinning astronaut doesn't slowly stop spinning. They keep spinning for the rest of eternity, since there is no force to stop them. In Gravity, an astronaut who uses a fire extinguisher gets thrust backward with equal and opposite force to the gushing foam, which in some cases can give said astronaut a mild concussion at the worst possible time.

In Gravity, space is cold and re-entry is hot. In Gravity, space is silent, and radioes have limited ranges.

It's all these little touches that make the movie compelling.

The characters, by contrast, are thin. And that's the nature of a ninety-one minute movie dominated by a space catastrophe. Thus, it was critically important to find two actors who can bring their own characters with them. The producers went through several choices before landing on our leads, and it was a felicitous process. You couldn't do better than Clooney and Bullock in these roles. Both are the perfect ages. They have the perfect amount of mileage on their lives, too.

And they seem to like each other.

Which is all we need to be off and running on what is surely now the frontrunner for Best Picture 2013.

It's early to call favorites, of course. The Oscar season is just beginning.

But Gravity is already better than eight of last year's nine nominations. It's quite similar to the ninth, Life of Pi, another movie high on visual artistry and low on character count.

I predict Gravity will go a similar route, netting a Best Director nod for Cuaron but losing out to an inferior movie with pretensions to social relevance.

That's always the way of it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Wolverine

Hollywood is an unfair place.

And you are at fault.

The fickle, flawed movie-going audience is at fault. And if you don't see ten movies per year in the theater, you are less than at-fault. You merely aspire to be at-fault for Hollywood's unfairness.

As a prime example of this phenomenon, I present The Wolverine, an utterly terrific motion picture that does almost everything right. And yet it's the lowest grossing X-Men movie of them all.

And X-Men Origins: Wolverine was one of those movies. But we'll get to that.

First, here's why The Wolverine is so good.

It limits its focus to about eight characters, the ideal number for a movie. There's Wolvie, our hero, played by Hugh Jackman. He gets contacted by a pink-haired Japanese girl named Yukio in delightful fashion -- during a bar fight -- and summoned to Japan, where an old acquaintance named Yashida (we're up to 3!) is dying of old age. Yashida wishes to bid farewell to the man who saved his life during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

While staying at the compound of the wealthy Yashida, Wolvie meets his granddaughter Mariko, our love interest (4!), who is apparently the beneficiary of the old man's entire estate.

The old man's funeral is attacked by samurai and ninja -- I hope my funeral is as exciting -- during which Wolvie rescues Mariko and discovers a terrifying fact: his mutant regenerative abilities are greatly dimished, meaning that for the first time he can be wounded and, potentially, killed.

Wolvie goes on the run with Mariko, whom he falls in love with despite the repeated dream-sequence appearances of Famke Jansen's Jean Grey (5!), whom Wolvie was forced to kill at the climax of X-3.

But the loving pair is pursued by Mariko's former archer-boyfriend Shingen and his new boss, the sinister Madame Viper (6 and 7!), played by Russian temptress Svetlana Khodchenkova.

Viper is responsible for Wolvie's impaired regeneration, as well as Yashida's death and the funeral melee.

Ultimately Wolvie is brought to Viper's mountainside stronghold, where he is faced with the robotic Silver Samurai (8!) in a battle to the death.


I mean, c'mon. That's a really good dramatic structure. It's a perfectly understandable story. It's packed with characters who impact the plot. And it's a lot of good, old-fashioned fun.

For you film snobs, there's even a meaningful theme running through the story. Ever since he was forced to kill Jean Grey for the greater good, Wolvie's harbored a desperately wounded psyche, ironic for a man who can heal from any physical wound.

In order to heal from the loss of Jean Grey, Wolvie must lose his regenerative ability and face death on its own terms. Only then can he resume being the Wolverine, the man who is the very best at what he does.

It's helpful when coming up with a theme to have a coherent plot with a limited number of characters and sub-plots, and this is where Hollywood gets into so much trouble. Whenever a story problem -- or a marketing problem! -- arises, Hollywood's typical answer is to add another character, add another subplot. Eventually movies collapse under the weight of all these well-meaning additions, as well as their bulked-up running times.

But The Wolverine somehow made it to theaters in sleek, purposeful form, and because of that it's a highly enjoyable movie experience.

Which is more than I can say for the previous installment of the Wolvie saga, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which has the most preposterous plot and muddled storyline of any movie in recent memory.

And that explains the underwhelming box office performance of The Wolverine. Moviegoers are heavily influenced by the previous movie in a given cycle. This explains why Iron Man 3 killed it at the box office. The previous Iron Man movie was the outstanding The Avengers.

And it explains why The Wolverine, excellent as it is, is dying at the box office. People are expecting another X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and are staying away.

So it's too bad you're not a smarter audience.

If you were, The Wolverine would be doing a lot better.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 88/100

How Much I Enjoyed 92/100

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

World War Z

There's no way for you not to know this, but the "Z" stands for zombie.

And the phrase "World War" is no exaggeration, except insofar as it's a one-sided affair, with the zombies routing uninfected humanity pretty badly.

And quickly too. The movie does not stand on formality. It introduces us to Brad Pitt and his happy family at the breakfast table in scene one.

In scene two, Pitt and his wife take their children to school.

By scene three, zombies are running amok through the streets of Manhattan.


The speedy onset of disaster leaves Pitt and family scrambling for safety through the rest of act one; safety they find on a US navy ship in the middle of the ocean. They owe their rescue to Pitt's status as a renowned UN weapons inspector. Unfortunately the rescue also comes with responsibility. The army wants Pitt to accompany a Harvard scientist to various laboratories around the world, searching not for weapons this time, but for a cure to the deadly zombie disease.

Thus, World War Z doesn't really chronicle a war, but the search for a cure to a disease that has already devastated the world.

There are definitely zombies, though. Lots of 'em.

The zombies are of the 28 Days Later run-at-you-fast school, which makes for some thrilling action sequences, though often at the expense of any feeling of dread.

And that sums up World War Z pretty well. It moves quickly, it's sometimes scary, almost always effective, but there isn't much real terror behind any of it.

Notoriously, the popular novel on which the movie is based has been completely scrapped. It had multiple viewpoints and heavy political leitmotifs, none of which play well at the summer box office.

So the character of Brad Pitt was invented, and it's just as well the actor was thrown into the mix, because in the absence of character revelation from the script, at least we know who the heck Brad Pitt is. (The movie would have been better if Angelina Jolie played the wife and the seven kids or whatever played themselves.)

Pitt doesn't do much acting. He brings tremendous energy to side characters like Lt. Aldo Raine of Inglourious Basterds, but when he's the main character he's usually pretty bland, as he is here.

There are plot problems -- notably a shocking lack of wall surveillance by the normally reliable Israeli military and a plane crash that leaves its survivors improbably close to their destination -- but they don't really matter since this is disposable summer entertainment, even if it's dressed a little snappier than we're used to seeing.

But it's passably good disposable summer entertainment, for whatever that's worth.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 57/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Man of Steel

I can't believe how many people died in this movie.

Tens of thousands at least. Probably hundreds of thousands. Entire skyscrapers are brought to the ground over and over. And over. And over.

Is this 9/11 symbolism? I don't know. That was a long time ago now -- hard as that is to believe -- and nothing in Man of Steel resonates with that terrorist attack.

So we're just left with all those casualties.

Man of Steel, of course, is the Superman reboot. But in this incarnation of the character, unlike any I've ever seen, Superman does not save people. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a single innocent saved in the film's two hour and twenty-four minute running time, except for a family of four Superman rescues at the climax by snapping the neck of his antagonist, General Zod.

I gotta tell ya, I don't really recognize this character. And I certainly don't like him.

Here's the plot:

Wait a second, you already know the plot. It's essentially the same as 1980's Superman II. That's the one where three Kryptonians who had been imprisoned years earlier by Superman's father show up looking for a little payback.

Superman II is notable for the first truly great super-hero smackdown, where all of Superman's powers are required just to hold his enemies to a draw. The fight ends, insightfully, when General Zod realizes Superman is going out of his way to protect the local citizenry from the fight's fallout. He shrewdly starts menacing said populace, which causes Superman to flee out of regard for their lives.

Zod yells "coward!" at the departing Superman. Doesn't change anything.

Because Superman, as he has always been conceived, isn't consumed with ego. He's not insecure, he's not petty, and he's not angry. He's above such things, because he's Superman.

All he does is look out for people.

Enter Man of Steel, where the three malevolent Kryptonians -- a perfect number; enough to make Superman an underdog, but not so many we can't separate their personalities -- are replaced by a whole shipful of malevolent Kryptonians. They are led by Michael Shannon's sneering Zod, who plays the villain like a rabid canine, possibly the least interesting acting choice he could make.


Zod has come to retrieve a genetic codex from Superman's DNA in order to recreate Kryptonian civilization right here on Earth. This is illogical, since Zod has an interstellar spaceship and could recreate Krypton on any number of other worlds, none of which would involve having to duke it out with Superman, but like I said, this Zod is a dumb animal, so he picks a fight.

And what a fight it is.

It rages all over Manhattan, toppling dozens of buildings, killing countless innocents, and not once do we ever get a shot of Superman wincing at the carnage. Instead he just hurls himself at Zod once again, pointlessly, toppling another building in the process.

The scene where he snaps Zod's neck is meant to be a powerful moment illustrating Superman's concession to necessity, but why the heck do we care about Superman's conscience at that point? The poor guy had to kill one rampaging madman. Big deal. A tenth of the city of New York just got crushed under ferrocrete.

In keeping with the bloody nature of this story, there's hardly any humor to be found. I only counted two jokes, one of which had a female soldier acting unprofessionally because Superman is so attractive, and another which constituted the last line of the movie, where Lois Lane puns, "Welcome to the Planet."

Two jokes. That gets you to the thirty second mark in The Avengers or Iron Man.

Even Nolan's dark, haunted Batman Begins was full of wit and humor -- everything Michael Caine's Alfred said was funny; almost everything Morgan Freeman said was funny -- and its sequel, The Dark Knight, had a mesmerizingly goofy performance from Heath Ledger. The third movie veered into glum heaviness, and that's what we see in Man of Steel.

And if that's what we can expect from Man of Steel sequels and an eventual Justice League, then I'm not interested.

A good superhero story has to be half-comedy. That's the alchemy that makes the genre work.

Oh, and you might want to throw in a conscience for your "hero."

SCORE

How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 25/100

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fast & Furious 6

You've got to give the franchise credit.

It knows exactly what it is.

It does now, anyway. It's easy to forget, the first movie had pretensions of actual quality, however ridiculous those pretensions were. And it's easy to forget the second and third movies didn't even feature series cornerstone Dominic Toretto, played by the inimitable Vin Diesel.

It was the fourth movie which jettisoned the word "and" in favor of the ampersand and, more importantly, returned Vin to his permanent place at the center of the Furious-verse.

And now the franchise is a printing press.


I don't remember which character is jumping off a tank onto a car in that picture, but lots of people do lots of jumping between vehicles. At one point Vin crashes his car into a guard rail, KNOWING the impact will eject him through the windshield so he can catch a falling Michelle Rodriguez and soft-land with her on the hood of another car.

I don't have a picture of it, but I know it happened.

And oh yeah! Michelle Rodriguez is back as Vin's tough-as-nails love interest, Letty. The fact that she was killed off a couple movies ago doesn't matter. She's back with amnesia and working for the bad guy.

So now we're homing in on the formula of this profitable franchise. It's a soap opera -- not even a melodrama, a full-blown soap opera; I fully expect the next installment to introduce Vin's evil twin brother -- played out with car chases, fist fights and gun battles.

And testosterone. Lots and lots of testosterone.

Since everyone knows the tone and style of a Fast & Furious movie, everyone's okay with plot absurdities and a general suspension of the laws of physics.

But beyond the reliably entertaining and often unintentionally comedic action sequences, there are two scenes in the movie that milk genuine dramatic tension out of fun situations. Both occur near the middle of the movie.

The first occurs after a drag race between Vin and his now-evil love, Michelle Rodriguez. Vin wins the race, which earns him a roadside chat with the woman he's been mourning the last few years. Vin applies the ol' Vin charm, Rodriguez applies her standard tough talk, and the scene somehow does the impossible: it introduces subtext into the dialogue. That never happens in Fast & Furious movies. Good job, guys.

The next scene occurs directly thereafter, when the bad guy -- an evil Brit named Shaw -- shows up and offers Vin the chance to back away from their coming confrontation, no questions asked.

It's a fun macho showdown that veers into the realm of the philosophical, as they discuss their differing worldviews in semi-polite terms. That also never happens in a Fast & Furious movie.

There's also The Rock, an addition to the franchise from last movie, and mixed martial arts star Gina Carano, a new and welcome member of the club. She dies at the end of this one -- whoops, spoiler alert -- after it is revealed that she is actually working for Shaw -- whoops, another spoiler alert -- but it's no biggie.

If the producers want her back in the next one, I'm sure they'll think of something.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Before Midnight

This is it. The last gulp of indie-movie fresh air before diving into the pressure-filled depths of the summer blockbuster season.

Now I like those depths, by and large, but I also like a little fresh air.

And I love the preceding two movies in this cycle, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

The creative participants, director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have joked that theirs is the lowest-grossing trilogy in film history. Which might be correct, but the ultra low-cost movies -- each consists of an extended conversation between Hawke and Delpy -- have made money for everyone involved, and, oh yeah, they've been a joy to watch.

The first movie took place in 1995, when the actors and their characters, both in their early twenties, encountered each other on a train in France. The next showed us their reunion in 2005, and the current 2013 film shows them as a married couple with a pair of twin girls.


The action begins with Hawke dropping off his teenaged son at the airport. The boy's mom lives in Chicago, and Hawke is getting the itch to relocate there in order to be closer to his son.

This creates the first bout of friction with Delpy, who adamantly does not want to find herself "buying peanut butter in a grocery store in Chicago," but it's not the last.

Before Midnight is filled with conflict, especially in the opening and closing sequences of the film. The marriage between Hawke and Delpy is not a fairy-tale match. It's real and difficult and draining and sometimes nasty.

But there's also love and laughing, and lots of philosophizing.

The basic idea behind these movies is to capture the feeling of a relationship in its various stages. The romance of early love, the moment of commitment, and then the results of that commitment.

I think all the movies are great. The fact that Hawke is an American and Delpy a Frenchwoman -- and that both of them co-write the scripts with Linklater -- results in a tension not just between individuals, or genders, but cultures. This generates one of the best dynamics you can get in fiction: legitimate conflict between characters who love each other.

We're not going to see much of that over the next three months, but Before Midnight has made it a little easier to get through the next three months with sanity intact.

Thanks, Before Midnight!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 79/100

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

I've seen the movie now, but I still don't understand what "Into Darkness" is supposed to mean.

The story takes the characters into no particular darkness, externally or internally, that isn't experienced by every character in every space opera that has ever been written.

There are laser battles -- I won't dignify the weapons involved with the name phasers -- there are spaceship chases, there are hostile aliens and even more hostile Starfleet admirals bent on cartoonishly diabolical schemes.

But darkness?

Where, exactly?

I begin to suspect the title was chosen simply because it sounds cool; not because there is any meaning behind it.

And that, friends, is the perfect parable for Star Trek: Into Darkness.


In a complete thematic retread of the previous movie, Chris Pine's Captain Kirk has the Enterprise taken away because of reckless behavior. But the Enterprise is restored, again by Kirk's mentor, Captain Christopher Pike, again by the end of the first act.

And it's none too soon.

A terrorist by the name of John Harrison, played by the reigning Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, has ruthlessly bombed a Starfleet administration building on Earth. Kirk and Spock figure out Harrison has escaped to, ahem, the Klingon homeworld, and thus are sent there to bring him to justice.

Everything that follows comes off like the plotting of a five year-old. Random, nonsensical things are forced to happen so that later events, already outlined, can work.

Example: a Starfleet admiral orders the Enterprise to take on 72 experimental, long-range photon torpedoes because they will be the best weapons for taking out Harrison. Scotty objects because the torpedoes are impervious to scans, so it's impossible to say exactly what's inside them. Scotty objects so much, in fact, that he quits. He quits the Enterprise, he quits Starfleet, he quits a twenty-year career in space.

Because he can't scan some torpedoes the admiral ordered him to accept without scanning.

This makes no sense until Scotty later gets a call from Kirk, who has grown suspicious of Peter Weller's scowling admiral, and asks Scotty to sneak aboard said admiral's ship and do some investigating.

Aha! So that's why Scotty quit! Because the writers needed him back on Earth halfway through the story when the Enterprise would be deep in Klingon space.

That's crap writing.

And it's marbled through Into Darkness.

Almost all my criticisms of the previous Star Trek movie are equally valid here: the dialogue is on-the-nose; the relationship between Kirk and Spock doesn't work; the larger universe is almost completely ignored to the extent that it feels like nothing exists beyond the boundaries of the movie screen. Battles take place in orbit around both the Klingon homeworld and the human one, yet no other ships ever arrive to help one side or the other.

A lot of this is craft-related. Basic storytelling stuff.

But underneath it all is a contempt for the source material. JJ Abrams, a confessed non-Trekkie, is doing everything he can to drive the box office numbers as high as possible. The execrable Paramount Pictures is doing the same. They have talked over and over about how they need to expand Trek's international audience.

Which is true, as far as it goes.

But their method of reaching that audience involves dumbing down the story to pre-teen, virtually illiterate levels -- just how poorly do we think of these foreign audiences, anyway? -- ramping up the action until it leaves the realm of Newtonian physics altogether, and replacing tension with constant, kinetic activity.


These Star Trek movies bear the same relation to the original Trek that the Transformers movies do to the eighties cartoon.

And that's a great analogy, because Abrams is doing his best Michael Bay impression with his directing, right down to the inane ploy of throwing in a sexy actress -- in this case, Alice Eve, playing the Badmiral's daughter -- who serves no purpose except to wear outfits that are ten percent tighter than anyone else's.

Or not to wear them at all.


The whole thing is very sad and dispiriting -- oh, by the way, Harrison turns out to be Khan, and Kirk dies saving the ship from radiation the same way Spock did in Wrath of Khan, except he gets revived when McCoy injects him with some of Khan's blood -- but if there's one piece of good news, it's that the movie is not doing well at the box office.

It's on pace to fall short of the original's numbers, which is the opposite direction these franchises are supposed to go.

The numbers are so weak, in fact, it calls into question the financial wisdom of making a third movie.

Which means maybe, if we're lucky, this will be the last Star Trek reboot we have to endure. At least for six or seven years, till Paramount reboots again with another cast and crew.

In the meantime, though, we'll have JJ Abrams' Star Wars VII to drive us crazy.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 14/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 3/100