Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bullet to the Head

I can't vouch for the commercial prospects of Bullet to the Head. I saw it at a free screening which was unable to fill the theater. And the title feels like a setup for the opening weekend headline: "Stallone Flick Executed Gangland Style."

But I can say this: the movie's pretty good. Or at least, as good as any movie called Bullet to the Head can possibly be.

The story tracks Stallone's Jimmy Bobo, a remorseless hit man who gets betrayed by his client and attacked in a crowded bar by uber-psycho Jason Momoa, who played Conan in the recent listless Conan the Barbarian remake, but is very good here as a human killing machine.

Stallone survives Momoa's attack, but his hit man partner doesn't. Now Stallone wants revenge on Momoa, and his own unknown client, in the worst possible way.

This set-up takes place within a hundred seconds or so. The film's in a hurry to get where it's going, and that's the pairing of Stallone with an Asian kung fu cop played by Sung Kang, of the Fast and Furious movies. These two are opposites -- Kang's a straight arrow with a strict sense of virtue, and Stallone's a land shark -- so we've got that going for us.

The movie is part noir detective story. Stallone and Kang traipse the dark, rainy streets of post-Katrina New Orleans looking for their next lead. It's also part action movie, as most sequences climax with a combination fistfight/gunfight between Stallone and a rogues' gallery of dangerous lowlifes.

It's obvious who the movie star in the partnership is. Kang gets his moments, but they are few and far between. Mostly he is a foil for Stallone, who gets to play a fun character, the slow-talking, sardonic, hulking Jimmy, who happens to be an unbeatable combatant.

Or almost unbeatable. The movie sets us up for a final showdown between the formidable Jimmy Bobo and the seemingly more formidable Jason Momoa. The final fight is an inventive one -- when's the last time you saw an axe fight? -- and when it's all over, someone gets a bullet to the head.


Actually, lots of characters get bullets to the head. The movie is exceedingly violent in a darkly funny graphic novel kind of way. That's no surprise, as the movie derives from a darkly funny graphic novel.

And that's the proper audience for this story: graphic novel fanboys. Hit man movie aficionados. Sylvester Stallone devotees.

The question is whether this audience is big enough to support a movie that must have cost in the fifty million dollar range. We'll see when the film gets released in February.

My guess is that Bullet to the Head will be one of those decent, enjoyable films that gets undeservedly murdered at the box office.

Gangland style!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 61/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 70/100

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

Just as people are living longer and healthier than ever before, movie franchises are showing amazing vitality many sequels deep. Last year's Fast Five was good and so was Underworld 4 earlier this year.

Truly we live in a wondrous modern age.

So I had high hopes for Resident Evil 5, the latest installment of a franchise I am a confessed sucker for. But as so often happens in life, my hopes were dashed on the cruel rocks of reality.

The problems with the five-quel are twofold:

First, the basic plot is uninspired. Consider the plots of the three good entries in this series:

RE1 -- Our girl Milla must go into a high-tech underground research base loaded with zombies to search for survivors of a disastrous bio-containment failure. In the end, she must contend with the computer mind of the facility itself, which does not want her -- or anyone -- to escape.

Good, right?

RE2 -- Milla awakens above ground to discover the dreaded T-Virus has escaped the underground facility and infected the populace. Now she must gather her friends and cross the zombie-filled city to an evacuation point before the authorities nuke the city to contain the virus.

All riiiiiight!

RE4 -- The whole world is overrun with zombies. Milla lands her helicopter on the roof of a Los Angeles prison, to which she's drawn by an SOS signal. On the plus side, she does find a handful of people who need saving. On the minus side, her helicopter gets wrecked and now she's trapped in the prison as well. Surrounded by about a hundred thousand zombies clamoring to get in.

The classic zombie story.

Now we have RE5, the plot of which is: Milla, captured by the evil corporation who invented the T-Virus, must work her way through various zombie-filled "simulation zones" in order to escape. The zones include a simulation of generic suburbia, followed by one for New York, then one for Moscow.

Ugh. Doesn't that just feel less interesting?

Part of the problem is the fakery involved. We already know we're in a movie, so if the New York City portrayed in the movie isn't real even within the context of the movie, then our suspension of disbelief just took a hit.

Second, we've got "plot coupon" syndrome. Any time a hero has to collect four sections of the treasure map, or three mystical stones of power, or -- dare I say it? -- a bunch of damn horcruxes, then a lot of the unpredictability, and therefore tension, drains out of the story. We know exactly how everything is going to go for the next hour, and the shape of the plot is a flat line instead of a rising slope.

It doesn't help that Milla -- tragically -- is aging, which reduces her white-hot good looks as well as her ability to perform the wall-to-wall stunts the franchise likes to employ her with. Thus we get "Ada," a younger Asian martial artist sent to help Milla escape.


We're also saddled with a teenage girl named Becky doing her best impression of Newt from Aliens. Unfortunately, RE5 doesn't really commit to this storyline, so the whole Becky subplot feels tacked on. It's one of those "oh yeah, we need some kind of relationship subplot somewhere" additions to the story.

Also it's too much like Newt from Aliens.

The final nail in the coffin is that title: Retribution. This is the same basic idea as the subtitle of the second Star Wars movie (remember, prequels don't exist), but look how much strength comes with the introduction of an active verb: in more creative hands, Retribution becomes The Empire Strikes Back, surely one of the most audacious, effective titles in all of cinema.

You should never underestimate a good verb.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 41/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Master

This is going to be a galvanizing movie.

It reminds me a lot of last year's The Tree of Life. That was a galvanizing movie too.

The reason is that neither movie follows any kind of conventional story structure. Neither movie has characters that arc, set-ups that pay off; neither movie is overly concerned with scene tension, or irony, or rising action. God help you if you're looking for act breaks.

But I liked The Tree of Life, and I like The Master.

Weird, right?


The plot -- such as it is -- follows two characters: Phillip Seymour Hoffman's civilized, charismatic cult leader, who seems very much based on L. Ron Hubbard, and Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, an alcoholic brute of a recently-discharged World War II veteran. The film takes place in the late forties.

Freddie runs across L. Ron Hoffman by sneaking onto his party boat for free hors d'oeuvres. Only later he discovers it's not a party boat, but a floating cult HQ which happens to be throwing a party. Freddie drinks too much, starts a fight, and gets locked in the brig.

The next morning he is brought into the presence of L. Ron. These two are complete opposites; one is an intellectual seeking a path to trans-human enlightenment; the other is almost sub-verbal. But they like each other, instantly and fully.

And that's the first sign we're not dealing with Hollywood -- or anything audience-pleasing at all. If the Hoffman/Phoenix relationship is the center of the film, and it is, then they have to start out disliking each other for their late-occurring closeness to have any power or meaning.

The reason the relationship worked for me anyway is that I clued into something thematically that gave me a framework to interpret the scenes that followed, thus keeping me moored to the film when I might otherwise have drifted away. This "thing" I intuited seems not to be universally accepted, and I may well be inventing it out of whole cloth, but it seemed obvious to me at the time. It's that L. Ron and Freddie are two sides of the same character, not just metaphorically but literally. Or as close to literally as you can come without introducing an experimental personality split-o-tron into the story.

If you accept that Freddie has all the raw desires and appetites of the character -- not just representing those attributes, but almost fully embodying them -- and L. Ron has all the intellectual faculties, then the movie plays out in pretty interesting fashion. Everyone around L. Ron hates Freddie and can't imagine how L. Ron tolerates such a crude and unpredictable lunatic, let alone delights in his presence.

Meanwhile, L. Ron spends the movie preaching his cultic scripture of transcendance, of New Age-y, mind-over-matter, fast-track evolution. This is pretty ironic because of the overwhelming soft spot he has for the least evolved movie character of the year. (And I said the movie disdained irony. Shame on me.)

There's a truly great scene that takes place in adjoining prison cells; Freddie in one, L. Ron in the other. They occupy a split screen, all rage and id on the one side, all rationality and ego on the other. It's a compelling scene, and captures the movie in a nutshell.

But don't look for an ending that resolves anything, or a climactic confrontation, or anything like that. You'll just be disappointed.

As a side note, it's been fascinating to watch auteur Paul Thomas Anderson's evolving artistic identity. One reason people are rebelling against The Master is that it comes from the director who, once upon a time, gave us narrative ticklers like Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, movies that are conventionally conceived but executed at an unusually high level.

That's what people want more of, but it doesn't seem to be what PTA wants to make. Magnolia -- my personal PTA fave -- started the trend toward cinematic experimentation. It reached an apex of critical acceptance with There Will be Blood, but after The Master, you can almost feel people thinking, "Wait a minute, so you're really not going to do anything like Boogie Nights again? Ever? Aww!"

And I feel that way too. Aww. I love Boogie Nights.

But The Master's pretty good too, albeit in a completely different way.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 79/100

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Great Gatsby

Who hasn't said to themselves at a quiet moment during the day, "You know what I would love? A 3-D movie version of The Great Gatsby!"

Gatsby, of course, is the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel about New York in the roaring twenties.

In it, narrator Nick Carroway moves to a fashionable part of the city, where he gets acquainted with his distant cousin Daisy, her brutish husband Tom, and the mysterious kajillionaire Jay Gatsby, who crushes on Daisy in one of literary history's all-time cases of unrequited love.

(Since literary history is pretty much composed of cases of unrequited love, that's really saying something.)

There exists a 1974 film version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy, which high school students are usually forced to watch. This is appropriate, since the movie feels like homework: slow, boring, and with no connection to actual life.

Now we have a 2012 version -- 2013, actually, the release date isn't until next May -- starring Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, Carey Mulligan as the oh-so-shallow Daisy, and Joel Edgerton as Tom.


First of all, the cast is magnificent. Leo's fast turning into the best actor of his generation, Carey Mulligan's becoming the token amazing-British-actress of her generation, sort of a younger Emma Thompson, and Tobey Maguire is, well, Tobey Maguire; but the part of Nick doesn't require much more than a bland sort of Gatsby-worship, and since Tobey belongs to DiCaprio's entourage, you could say he's been preparing for this role most of his life.

The new version of Gatsby does a great job conveying the soul of the original story which, like my beloved Mad Men, has a lot to do with the reality of success, of wealth, of happiness -- of America! -- falling short of the image we hold in our heads.

This is ironic, since F. Scott idolized the rich -- something Hemingway castigated him for. Yet in Gatsby, Fitzgerald went the other way, building up the romantic illusion that happiness is only the right house or the right woman, or the right name change away, then climaxing his story with the emptiness and futility of it all, as both the actual Daisy and Gatsby's idealized notion of her slip out of grasp.

This may sound expected or cliche, but for Fitzgerald it was a huge thematic leap. It's almost as if Fitzgerald was able to sustain, simultaneously, his infatuation with the world's glitterati and his disdain for them, writing his tale with both aspects equally alive in his mind. Maybe that's why the story as written holds such profound power.

Regardless, director Baz Luhrmann does a great job capturing the iconic moments of this familiar tale. The ugly car accident, the fateful swim in the pool, the unattended funeral... each moment plays with an operatic breathlessness perfectly suited to it.

If Luhrmann's knack for melodrama adds a lot of vitality to the movie, so too does his visual generosity. Gatsby 3-D! as I wish it were called, is a dazzling gem to behold. The lavish parties Gatsby throws are presented in ridiculous over-the-top fashion. They are bigger than the biggest parties ever thrown. They certainly don't resemble anything that actually took place in the early 20's. And thank goodness. Sometimes fidelity is the bane of adaptation. Any remake must grow in the remaker's imagination. Otherwise, ironically, the spirit of the original has no chance to survive the translation.

No fear of that here. Luhrmann grabs Gatsby and runs with it, turning in an unexpected masterpiece of a remake.

The movie's been bumped from its original Christmas release date, all the way to next May, partly because the studio doesn't want to compete with the other big Leonardo di Caprio movie coming out at Christmas, Tarantino's Django Unchained.

But I hope a lot of people turn out for the movie in May, because I really want to see the next big Hollywood blockbuster: For Whom the Bell Tolls 3-D!

Note:

I saw this movie at an advance screening, before which I was required to sign a non-disclosure form that specifically prohibited online reviews.

Obviously I'm violating that agreement here. And I might feel bad about that -- nah, not really -- if I didn't enjoy the movie so much that I have only good things to say.

Anyway, sorry about this betrayal of trust, Warner Brothers.

And you're welcome!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 88/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 89/100