Godzilla (2014)

godzillaDir. Gareth Edwards, 123 min., in theaters

As it’s summer, I once again to return to tell you my boring opinions on movies you’ve probably already seen. No goals this year for how many films I want to watch, but I’d be surprised if I top 40. First up, everyone’s favorite building-stomping lizard.

As a point of comparison, nothing could be worse than Roland Emmerich’s 1998 stab at the identically titled film (Nathan Rabin sums up the disappointment pretty well). It could be that the mists of time cloud my recollections (I saw this film in theaters as a high school junior), but I remember loud “boo”s ringing out when Godzilla was resurrected near the end of the film and had to be defeated yet again by tanks and jet fighters.

Employing characters that actually have depth (instead of one-line, “cast of characters” descriptions), as well as coming up with monsters that have a (semi-)plausible raison d’etre, massively vaults Edwards effort over his predecessor.

Without giving too much away: Bryan Cranston (Brody) plays a disgruntled loner, trying to prove that the site of a terrible nuclear accident (strongly reminiscent of the tragedy at Fukushima) is actually a massive cover up of a large monster. Meanwhile, his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and a scientist who studies ancient, nuclear-feeding monsters (Ken Watanabe) become enmeshed in the subsequent events (sometimes unrealistically, as Brody’s son always seems to be wherever the monsters are).

I got a kick out of the character name, as there is a similar Cheif Brody in another summer blockbuster movie trying to convince the world of the existence of a “prehistoric” monster; the film itself is not without some humor, but mostly this is a special effects showpiece that uses character development just enough to make us care whether these people get crushed under a monster’s foot.

The effects are pretty good, though watching one building get crushed is no more exciting than watching the next. The monster battles are equally entertaining, and the showdown with Godzilla and his adversary is on par with King Kong battling a T-rex. The cleverness of the Godzilla origin story pays homage to the horrors of the nuclear age, while similarly (and smartly) avoiding any hint that the current USA has anything good in the way of technology or ideas to contribute to this monster hunt.

Ken Watanabe is predictably underutilized in this Americanized rendition, but far from the borderline offensive Emmerich take on the Japanese:

Watanabe instead comes across as a “quiet man” type, burdened by his own painful connection to the nuclear age. Cranston gives a strong performance, though I don’t have much to baseline him on as I’ve still yet to watch that famous TV show he was on (what was it called again?). The rest of the cast is serviceable.

Is there a future for Godzilla after this film? IMDB already lists “Godzilla 2″ as a future directorial credit. I suppose I’d probably go see it, and that’s about as much of a ringing endorsement as you’ll get out of me on any monster movie.

AV Club: B+
Dissovle: 3.5/5
RT: 73%
Me: B+

The World’s End (2013)

The_World's_End_posterDir. Edgar Wright, 109 min., in theaters

Did we need another film in the style of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, or as some people are calling this, the third entry in the Cornetto Trilogy? No.

Like so many films I watch that are playing a nostalgia card, recycling old ideas with new actors in a desperate attempt to sell tickets and cover multi-million dollar budgets, this film comes off as unnecessary and boring. I myself became (overly) excited at the prospect of the actors and director that made two of my favorite films once again returning to lampoon society and cinema though exposing the silliness of both with a quick, dry wit. Sadly, this film delivers hardly any laughs as a group of aging sad sacks reflect on how old they feel (or should feel in the case of Simon Pegg’s emotionally stunted manchild, Gary). It plays like City Slickers but without the fun, and cops 60% of it’s plot from Hot Tub Time Machine while somehow managing to deliver less (and sometimes lazier) jokes than even that piece of shit.

Pegg’s character somehow reunites his high school mates, including Nick Frost’s Andy who he *spoiler* left to die in a drunken car accident some sixteeen years earlier, to relive the pinnacle of his youth: a pub crawl. While the original night is talked about as epic, and is clearly supposed to be the prime motivation for Gary, I am mystified as to why anyone cares about completing this ritual some twenty years later. Gary’s former friends barely tolerate each other, let alone Gary. They have all moved on to ho hum suburban professional lives, but when they reunite all they can talk about is what a bad idea this premise is (not the best move to engage your audience). The dialogue is so boring that at one point, I expected them to have a discussion on the merits of various 401k diversification strategies. That might have been funnier than their actual interplay with Gary, which swings from enabling his debauchery to utter disgust with the pathetic state of his life.

Once the shit gets real later in the film, I expected a more congenial ensemble to emerge and for the tone to get a bit more lighthearted, but it never does. The sparse laughs that do come about from Wright’s once master comedic timing are almost immediately dispelled in short order. One of Gary’s friends who was relentlessly bullied and savagely beaten by a high school tormentor describes in heart-breaking detail his misery early in the film. When he’s finally given his chance to deliver some comeuppance to a his tormentor’s robot analogue, he is rewarded by himself being killed and replaced with a robot. There might have even been time for a, I don’t know, joke or something, but nope. He’s just killed by robots.

There is also the ever present specter of the aforementioned drunk driving accident that defines Pegg and Frost’s chemistry. I’ve read a lot of short fiction and seen a lot of films that use drunk driving to drive the plot, but it hardly ever results in anyone laughing; this is no exception. It is finally revealed just prior to the end of the film that *spoiler* Andy’s wife has left him and he is, in fact, miserable. Not to be outdone, Gary reveals that he tried to commit suicide as a final escape from his demons, and that this pathetic pub crawl was the only thing keeping him alive. The premise is almost as disconnected as another Pegg outlet, Run, Fatboy, Run, where a character foolishly fixates on some arbitrary accomplishment as the solution to all his problems.

In total, the film’s laughs were frequently tainted by questionable material: jokes about having sex in bathrooms designed for disabled bar patrons, a somewhat disturbing sequence with our sad sacks perving out on teenage schoolgirl robots, and a bit about Gary’s mother dying from cancer – Gary lies about that to get his friends to agree to the pub crawl – and then actually dying in the ensuing apocalypse. At times I wondered if this was supposed to be a comedy at all, or if I had just misread the concept of the film entirely. The sparse goofball laughs and the discussions of this as part of a comedic trilogy suggest that I probably should have been laughing much more than I actually did. I don’t want to come across as a prig or say that certain topics are taboo for comedy, but it’s hard to get in a laughing mood when cancer, suicide, drug abuse, and drunk driving accidents are the topics the characters keep returning to.

I can’t say enough about the lameness of the ending. One of the reasons SotD is so hilarious is that it puts the oafish characters into a zombie film where they are both hilariously incompetent and simultaneously self-aware. The director succeeds there by bringing the audience in on the laughs, and as a result creates a solid zombie film entry in its own right. While this film is an obvious take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and maybe The Stepford Wives, replacing complete disregard for fawning obsequiousness), I wouldn’t even say The World’s End is half as good as that film; it adds little to nothing to that genre as far as I’m concerned. The robots seem more designed as a heavy-handed metaphor to further expose Gary’s patheticness. Gary is certainly made to be a despicable character, but his redemption at the end (if one can call it that) does nothing to change his story arc: even after the apocalypse he is still an emotionally stunted manchild who has actually regressed further (if that’s possible), though at least he drinks water instead of beer and schnapps on his Mad Max style pub crawls across the scorched Earth.

After reading some comments on various reviews I noticed that there are more Easter eggs and clever bits than I noticed on first viewing, but I can’t get over some of the more depressing aspects of the film. For instance, Gary’s suicidal, coked up loser is being critiqued by adults who clearly have their own desperate problems. The bullied friend still works for his Father in their car dealership and is upbraided by him for having a personal conversation at work, his Realtor friend is detached (constantly tuned in to his Bluetooth mobile earpiece), Andy struggles with his marriage and repressed rage over his misspent youth with Gary, and Gary’s second-fiddle counterpart is divorced and compensates for his inadequacies with a fitness instructor girlfriend. When thinking of why these folks are actually on this pub crawl with Gary I’m reminded of the reprimand Shaun gets from his flatmate: “Does it make you feel better having someone around who’s even more of a loser than you?”

Even at a lean 108 minutes, I was at times wondering “how long until the Goddamn world ends already?” The final 15 minutes is regrettable in that it feels about as tacked on as it can get. I don’t really agree with any reviews that claim Wright was up to his usual standards when making this film. Partly this may be my fault, as my expectations were sky high. I left thoroughly disappointed, and I’m not sure I’ll be so eager to see Wright’s next film.

AV Club: A-
RT: 91%
Me: D+

Star Trek: Into Darkness, and what we want out of films

Dir. J.J. Abrams, 132 min., in theater
**Spoilers ahoy**

Lately, with the death of Roger Ebert and my own critical reflection on the role of each of us as critics, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we want to get from the experience. What makes us consume art, and what do we bring to the table from our own experiences?

I wouldn’t say that I’m biased towards the Star Trek franchise in any way (many of the films and TV episodes are garbage), but I do have an affinity for this series more than I do for, say, the Star Wars films. Nor do I become rabid over changes in the the characters or story lines as iterations come and go (see for example the anger over adaptations like X Men: First Class that rewrite characters and origins stories). I also firmly believe that films live and die on the screen, and that asking people to “prepare” for seeing a film or telling people that you “get more out of it” if you’ve read the comic/book/etc. doesn’t excuse a bad film.

All that baggage out of the way, your film experience with Into Darkness is really going to vary depending on how much you know about the original 1960’s television series and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (which itself is somewhat dependent on the “Space Seed” episode of the original television series). I suppose your reaction as a critic and viewer depends on whether you are seeing a summer action movie with no conception of the Star Trek mythos, or if you are going to see what is essentially Star Trek XIII: The Wrath of Khan reimagined.

At the core of Star Trek is the balance between the Federation, an alliance where everyone is friendly and civilized (at least outwardly), and the rest of the unknown universe, which McCoy summarizes in his own cantankerous way in Abrahams’ Star Trek (2009): “disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” Unless your a damned fool, you have by now realized that almost everything in conventional science fiction is an effort to translate contemporary problems of our society and our ever-shifting conceptions of what is morally acceptable into a tableau of alien worlds, advanced civilizations, and technology that lets humans surpass one or more limitations or natural boundaries. In the case of Into Darkness the plot revolves around our response to terrorism and the human desire to avenge the wrongs done to their kind. In the Trek franchise, Starfleet is a contradiction in terms: a peace-loving group of explorers who are simultaneously responsible for patrolling the borders and destroying enemy threats as they arise. Throughout every story line, the fundamental tension is how to manage threat deterrence while preserving the freedom of the Federation’s citizens, avoiding overt hostilities with other peoples, and generally not turning the Federation into the very things it fights against. Recent American history has a lot to do with the amplification of these concerns throughout the past few iterations of the Trek franchise.

Hence I find that McMillian’s review for Wired, especially his assertion that the plot is “scattershod,” to be a misreading of the film. If anything, Into Darkness continues along the same plot line as the entire franchise up to this point, including the last film. The film begins with the terrorist bombing of a secret Federation facility in London (a facility very similar to secret U.S. intelligence facilities documented by Frontline/Pro Publica over the last few years). After that, the Starfleet commander’s plan to extract vengeance and protect against further alien threats is elaborated on by degrees that are less “plot twists” than elements we’ve come to expect from the reboot franchise (e.g. a shift from exploration to militarization, paranoid xenophobia, secret extralegal intelligence organizations, etc.).

This returns to the dilemma I am concerned with: are you watching this a standalone film or as part of a larger series? Those who saw the last film will remember that the Federation of this alternate timeline was just attacked by the rouge Romulans who destroyed Vulcan and killed billions of people. Is it that much of a plot twist that the Federation has been secretly planning an aggressive defense strategy? Apart from dethawing the 20th century supermen to fight their secret war against the antagonistic Klingons, there’s not much out of the blue here, except for the fact that Khan is inexplicably a white Briton as opposed to a Latino man playing a Sikh.

Did the writers, as McMillian suggests, miss opportunities to comment more on the social issues of our day? I believe they certainly did. But releasing this film in the summer requires a certain balance between action/adventure (that appeals to a broad audience) and introspective science fiction (that typically draws worse reviews and lower box office takes). I’ve talked before on this blog about hard versus soft sci-fi, and people typically go to theaters in droves for action-driven, hard sci-fi. Crossing over into introspection, moralizing, and thought provoking conversations about the ethics of interspecies relations would be inappropriate for this film and its goals. A valid question that I haven’t heard asked is whether the Trek style of introspection is really suited for the theaters.

A motion picture is an entirely different beast than a television series, and reviewers of the first eleven Star Trek films tend to center on a single opinion: this film could have been a two-hour episode of Star Trek. Abrams’ films are both relieved of that burden and cursed with the baggage of taking a new direction. The original Trek series was very one-note in terms of its moralistic delivery system: typically a didactic chat by the main characters at the end of the show that often ended with highly forced laughter. Gene Roddenberry imagined a utopian society that used advanced technology to sweep away the ills of humanity, but it stemmed from the post-war optimism of the 1950s and turned a blind eye to the growing disillusionment with government resulting from the Vietnam war. The morals that were clumsily dispensed at the end of each episode praised humanity (often an embarrassing proxy for the United States) far more often than pointed out our flaws. I also think reviewers, after several series and numerous films, tend to forget the the original series was an action/adventure show; the budget didn’t allow for the flashy effects of Abrams’ films, but the ratio of fistfights to highminded debates was pretty close.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society via Flickr Creative Commons BY SA 2.0
Later incarnations of the series in film held true to Roddenberry’s original action oriented vision, and largely fell flat towards the end with the excessive cheese that accompanies minor moral tribulations overcome with homespun ingenuity and fair play. In each of those films, there are staggering moral consequences dealt with and just as quickly brushed aside. For example, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the first film) has to do with the dangers of forcing premature contact with the unknown. In that film, the deep space probe Voyager, long since forgotten, returns as an unstoppable juggernaut that was built by well-meaning artificial life forms in order to fulfill its mission and return to Earth to download its data; when it finds it can’t do that, it nearly destroys all life on Earth. By the logic of the above reviewers, we might expect a discussion at the end of the film about the dangers of recklessly shooting devices into deep space that make our existence known to life forms that are possibly far more advanced than ourselves, and whose intentions we have no way to predict. In fact, having any contact with any species is staggeringly dangerous, but sci-fi operates on the basis that we can accept and suspend our disbelief of those risks long enough to be entertained. If fans really want a “thinking man’s series” as AV Club reviewer A.A. Dowd seems to think, then a long-form television series is much better poised to deliver weighty discussions than films that come out once every two years or so.

To return one more time to the “what do you expect?” question, I think that has a lot to do with your experience with the material and your expectations for engaging with the film. I don’t pick up issue 13 of a serialized comic, then get pissed off when I don’t get the inside jokes about a character from Detective Stories forty years ago. I guess the problem is that I wouldn’t pick up that comic at all, but in the age of serialization I suppose we should be asking whether that avoidance isn’t a good thing for films, television, and literature. Serialized narratives are nothing new, but they do present the barrier to entry that demarcates pop-culture cliques. I have never watched Breaking Bad or Mad Men or Arrested Development, and I’m probably not very likely to start; I have no stomach for watching 50 hours of television just so I can catch up with current episodes. If we view Into Darkness in the light of serialization, is it any surprise that it would have a similar barrier to entry?

The “Easter eggs” and hidden callbacks to the original Trek series are more than just lip service to the fans. The film has the enormous responsibility of taking on the Trek cannon, which has been redone in numerous incarnations, and coming up with something that seems exciting and relevant to today’s audiences in roughly two-hour increments. This film, far from the crown jewel of Trekdom, is a serviceable entry that hearkens back to the cannon while offering the action movie with high quality visual effects that today’s audiences expect.

Star Trek Lunchbox
My Star Trek Next Gen lunchbox that my parents inexplicably kept for about 23 years, which I packed and drove home 500 miles with me last year. This proves without a doubt that I was the very coolest of kids in third grade.

Pandering and literary arrogance: The Case Study of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

When I first heard of the concept behind both the book and film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter I was exhilarated. I’ve read enough dry, historical texts to appreciate the levity of reconsidering Lincoln’s life through the lens of him splitting vampires in half with his axe (instead of rails). What quickly happened as I read the book this past week was the dampening of my enthusiasm by my critique of the text (and later, film), but also the realization that I brought my own literary arrogance to the experience. What followed were existential questions: Can someone who spends so much time on critique, both of other’s and of one’s own work, ever enjoy art without the encumbrance of critique?

I purchased the novel on on a whim to pass the time on my flight. The book itself begins with a prologue about a depressed, former writer running a general store who strikes up an acquaintance with a strange individual who is, unsurprisingly, a vampire. The vampire then bestows upon him the secret journals of Abraham Lincoln with the request that he take the information and compose a text based on the source material. The conceit is then dropped, as we are given the text that he supposedly authored and the prologue protagonist is never mentioned again.

I had numerous problems with the text as I was reading. It approaches the material from the perspective of a third-person narrator/journal curator, frequently delving into passages quoted from the secret journals. The function of the narrator seems to be to fill in historical gaps and deal with the problematic nature of scenery and character description (which is still remarkably scant) among other narrative necessities that are not typical fare for the diarist. I found myself irritated with the nuances of the presentation, such as the way in which Grahame-Smith attempts to mimic the errors that would have been endemic to an 18th century, autodidact country boy. They are too few to be believed, and later in the presentation of the journal passages they are completely missing. Under the assumption that errors are part and parcel with all writing, and considered in the context of the fictional conceit from the prologue, the narrator, at some point, has elected to edit the journals, and thus becomes Lincoln’s editor for posterity’s sake. To make it simpler, the whole matter could have been completely dispensed with.

Characters are introduced to plug up hole after hole in the plot (need bodyguards? here’s three nameless, descriptionless vampires), create foolish historical intrigue (e.g. a friendship between Edgar Allen Poe and Lincoln), and are tossed away just as easily (one of the early main characters gets killed by a horse and Lincoln hears of it second hand).

Manipulating the history is by far the greatest opportunity to make inroads in the artistic fulfillment of this piece, but it is handled with mixed results. In some cases, major historical events are cleverly weaved into the vampire narrative. Equally important is the counterbalancing, as this is a conspiracy text and the events must have a clever reason to be concealed or overlooked by history in order for the conspiracy angle to fly. A great example of this is the death of Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s rival in politics and love, and the way in which his death is both related to his late-in-life change from pro-slavery (and, by association pro-vampire) leanings to repentance and abolitionism.

In some cases, crutches are used to keep the concept going. Referencing the earlier point about dispatching characters, Lincoln’s life is one marred by death and working out how to relate those deaths to vampires would seem to be a challenge, but it wasn’t for Grahame-Smith: most anyone who died in Lincoln’s life did so because a vampire poisoned him or her with vampire blood. It’s a convenient trick, but each successive use of this concept serves to play out the concept a little bit more.

It seems, as the novel wears on, that the temptation of this juicy concept is too much for Grahame-Smith to rein in. Slavery becomes the enterprise of vampires. The civil war becomes a conflict between “good” vampires and “evil” vampires with humans as their pawns. Every subsequent problem of race relations in this country: vampires. It borders at times on an apologist history of the United States, where every supposed bad thing that we did as a country was somehow directly linked back to vampires. In a more reflective piece, one might be able to link the fictional scourge of vampires to our own real-life complicity in morally objectionable activities through the metaphor of vampires as a projection of our own shame-fractured psyches: “we couldn’t have done such things, so it must have been vampires.” That simply doesn’t happen however, and the ending of the text comes off as pointedly hackneyed as the constant, obvious references to Shakespeare’s five most widely read plays (I won’t spoil the ending if you still plan to read the book).

With all of those criticisms in mind, and as irritated as I sometimes was with the book, I still loved the concept. Portions of the book showed enormous potential. In fact, if the book had just been stopped right before Lincoln’s first trip to congress, it would have been all the better for it. Still, I wanted to see the film just to get an idea of how it could be translated into a compelling narrative.

I couldn’t have been more disappointed with this film. It takes only the broadest strokes of the concept and translates them into a ham-fisted action vehicle fit for Sylvester Stallone. There is zero acting talent, and most of the compelling characters are reworked into standard action hero cliches or, worse yet, copies of characters from other films (Lincoln’s vampire mentor Henry Sturges not only has his compelling backstory flattened and distorted, but his character appears to be a dime store knockoff of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes). Every ounce of history is all but obliterated from this film, with the apparent hope that people have at least heard of the Civil War and can make the connection that slavery = vampires = bad. It is pandering of the worst degree, making little to no effort to engage anything that made the book mildly entertaining.

If you knew nothing of Lincoln the man going in, you know less coming out, which is a pitiable shame. Where the novel has lofty ambitions yet fails in many of the supporting details, I can say that the film appears to have no ambitions and fails at even producing a coherent action story, which is by far the worse sin.

What’s disturbing to me is that neither book nor film are inherently bad, they just have certain faults that I don’t like. As the years go by, I find that list of annoyances growing and growing as I consume more and more, to the point where I rarely see something that doesn’t disappoint in one way or another. There are rare exceptions of course, but it leads me to question the soul-crushing nature of a life of criticism.

In the academy the trend is the same: we are all trained as skeptics and debunkers first, and that seems to persist (and intensify) to the point that some professors I meet can’t listen longer than twenty seconds before they start in on the problems with your study. In some cases, you either never get to explain your results or they fall on deaf ears, as you have some component of your study which causes a fatal hangup from the audience member who will never appreciate the contributions you do make.

As instructors, we search relentlessly for problems with student writing. I myself rarely issue perfect grades on assignments. Part of the process of learning is continual improvement, such that we feel the need to constantly critique in order to force students to improve. We play “devil’s advocate” in the classroom, countering students’ assertions to force them to think through problems. And we complete the cycle, forcing students into the critical mindset we espouse.

Criticism is not bad. In the anticipatory sense, it forces us to perform necessary self-edits and to exert a higher level of effort, ultimately resulting in more polished, mastered work. In the post-writing sense, it forces us to detach from our work and reflect on how we can improve. As it relates to aesthetic appreciation, it helps us define our tastes and collectively promote those works that reflect our own interests.

If there are lessons to be learned from the above experience, perhaps they center on appreciating something for what it is, not what it could be. As much fault as you find with one incarnation of a project, it could always be worse. That sounds like a dismal or glib conclusion, but it seems to be one that is overlooked, especially in our culture. A recent Pew study on Twitter and political opinions found that people were decidedly more negative in their sentiments when using Twitter versus reaction to the same events gathered through phone surveys. Laughably, I went on Twitter to criticize Pew’s lack of disclosure concerning methods after I read the report. If true, and if others feel the same way as I did about the study, it potentially reveals a doubly sad truth about the internet: we can’t help criticizing everything, and at the same time we can’t stand to accept that we are overly critical.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Dir. Joe Johnston, 125 min., in theaters

I had originally intended to see Bad Teacher today, but due to a theater mix up, we ended up seeing Captain America instead. This wasn’t the worst two hours of my life, but it won’t rank up there with the best either.

The title does nothing to hide the fact that this film is essentially another cog in the Marvel machine that will eventually churn out The Avengers (2012), a combination of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and the titular hero of this film. Despite my affinity for graphic novels, I never really immersed myself in the Marvel universe other than the X-Men, and I have been known to mistake Marvel for DC and vice versa (the cardinal sin).

To be honest, I’ve pretty much lost most of my love for superhero movies. I grew up in the late eighties/early nineties, an era when there were few, if any, great superhero films to watch. I saw every Superman movie, but apart from those films I can’t remember much in the way of superheroes. My superheros were mainly action starts like Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thus it must be a real thrill for comic book fanboys who have been loyal for years to see their childhood heroes finally represented in a big way on the big screen, but the thrill is mostly gone for me. After suffering through films like X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Spider Man 3 (2007), I started to wonder what it would take to produce a film that was just great without having it do double duty as a marketing device. The final entry in the X-Men film series terminated interesting characters with extreme prejudice and slammed any future writer’s fingers in the door. Likewise with the final Spider Man film. Someone along the way decided that there should be only three films in a series.

Until now. Beginning with last summer’s godawful Iron Man 2 which by all accounts (except the mo$t important) was a failure, it was clear that a mega movie was in the works that would combine multiple Marvel action heroes, and in order to do that someone decided that we must meet each individual component of the forthcoming Avengers film in their own feature, hence this year’s Thor and Captain America.

In the car ride home, I explained to Nicole and Teresa how sick to death of origin stories I am at this point. My sentiment, especially with regard to this film, is that the first third of each origin story is essentially a pathos building machine so that we can root for the superhero; unless you’re one of the Nazis that Captain America dispatched in this film, you are going to root for the superhero. This film very clumsily shows us things, then tells us them, then shows us them again in case we missed the first two character building events. If I were to chart out the beats that the origin story portion gives us, it would look something like this:

Our hero is: scrawny, patriotic, scrawny, awkward, patriotic, determined, scrawny, determined, patriotic, awkward, determined, kick-ass, patriotic, finally Captain America

If Kenneth Branagh or Ang Lee has to direct a superhero film to avoid this problem, I’ll take that any day.

Joe Johnston could almost be described as schizophrenic in his successes: he has flopped out at least three times (The Rocketeer, Hidalgo, and The Wolfman). I didn’t even know he was the director behind The Rocketeer, but it seemed somehow only logical given the depiction of the 40’s–to put it nicely, he “returned to some of his original ideas.” Something was just wrong in terms of authenticity and depictions of World War II. I realize this is a fantasy, but I still expect some engagement with the settings. War torn Europe seems less like the setting for the story, and more like the cardboard facades of a TV wild west town.

For everything that is wrong with this film, there are some highlights. Dominic Cooper gets more and more entertaining as Howard Stark (read Howard Hughes), and pretty much every scene that he’s in makes the film much cooler. The lab scenes are reminiscent of the Manhattan Project, and I would probably watch a film with just him. At least Captain America throws his shield more than once, though many of the film’s action sequences are crammed into an aggravating montage that robs filmgoers of what they pay to see, action.

Without spoiling the ending, there will not be a true sequel for Captain America. The sole function of this film is a lead up to next year’s The Avengers, which will hopefully be origin story free. Luckily, The Amazing Spider Man will be there to show us how Peter Parker becomes Spider Man, again.


Movie Roundup: Late June, Early July

I have finally finished up with my qualifying exam paper, and I am only now starting to catch up with everything else going on in my life to start writing about films again. For my 51st blog entry, here is a post with some of the films I’ve seen recently.

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (2011), Dir. John Schultz, 91 min., in theaters

In the tradition of manic pixie dream girls, Aunt Opal (Heather Graham) arrives to whimsically entertain and uplift our protagonist, the sulky Judy Moody (Jordana Beatty), after her summer plans are ruined by vacationing friends and parents. It may surprise you, but I did not voluntarily elect to see this film; Nicole had to watch this as part of her research for a conference paper she presented a few weeks ago. I haven’t seen many films made for children in the last fifteen years or so, but this film is certainly not a gateway back to that genre. Fun is quantified and hyper-fetishized (Judy is obsessed with scoring “thrill points” by accomplishing “uber-rare” dares) which I would expect of children growing up in this era, yet child characters in the film rarely use computers or mobile phones (perhaps they are too young??) and live in a 50’s style suburban dream world, with parents and friends who look like they stepped off the set of Leave it to Beaver with flip hairdo’s and round glasses (one of Judy’s friends is practically Alfalfa from The Little Rascals). The whole thing looks like a middle-aged woman’s view of childhood on crack. Also, the dialogue, whether it comes from a children’s book or not, is atrocious–a sample:

“We can beautify the world with our amazing art”

“Aunt Opal says when all else fails, dance”

“Let’s go on Google! Let’s Google fun!”

That is just terrible. I went home and watched The Goonies the same night, and noticed that it’s not much better, but I will defend that film over Judy Moody for the intangibles that make that film a classic, a status that I predict this film will never achieve. For the ‘rents, if N and I could sit thought it without hanging ourselves, you can probably survive just fine.


Collateral Damage (2002), Dir. Andrew Davis, 108 min., Netflix (disc)

The appeal for this film is that I have seen pretty much every other Arnold Schwarzenegger film every made, except this one (not very a very strong rationale, but it’s also summer). Schwarzenegger had made several pieces of garbage-iola in the run up to this film (Jingle All the Way, The 6th Day, End of Days, etc.), but this really is the prize pig of the bunch. The plot trajectory is basically the same as Commando (1985), except that instead of being a kick-ass, special-forces, black-ops killing machine, Schwarzenegger plays a fire fighter. Don’t get me wrong, I respect a man or woman who can rush into a burning building, drag out a half dead victim, and then resuscitate said victim; however, I don’t necessarily want to see that person take on a Colombian drug syndicate and lose, repeatedly, without firing a gun or beating anyone up. To credit the writers’ attempts at trying something new for AS, they do attempt several ways of integrating his knowledge of firefighting and explosives investigation into the means by which he disposes of the baddies, but all for naught. To wit, the final scene involves AS disposing of someone with his superior fireman knowledge and a fire axe, and the fire axe does not cleave any of the baddies–it is merely your standard chopping utensil and not a close-quarters combat weapon…even Backdraft has that. Also, in the ultimate sin of an AS movie, there were no good one liners.


Other films I bumped into:

Khwaam jam sun… Tae rak chan yao (en: Best of Times) (2009), Dir. Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, 117 min., at the Chicago International Film Festival Free Summer Screening, Thai with English Subtitles

A humorous and pleasant romantic comedy which builds on many universal themes of longing and loss while interweaving them with Thai culture and beautiful shots of the Bangkok and Thai country landscapes. The first half of the film follows Keng (Arak Amornsupasiri) as he begrudgingly falls again for his lost first love, Fai (Yarinda Bunnag), who dated, wed, and subsequently divorced his secondary school best friend. The concurrent subplot consists of two elderly people courting and dealing with the constraints of Thai culture and their own infirmities, whom chance brings together with the younger couple. The delightful and equally bawdy humor melts away in the last third of the film and is replaced by (at times) a sappy, though well conceived storyline whose main detraction is the overly sweeping melodies that accompany the equally sweeping shots; they compound to create a sense of somewhat unearned sentimentality. That weak finish is incapable of taking away from the otherwise well written, shot, and acted film. It’s showing again this Saturday at 2p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center next to Millenium Park, and I would recommend checking it out, especially since it is totally free and open to the public. As a side note, there are a lot of great films coming up on the free summer screening schedule.


Films in my Netflix queue that I plan on reviewing:

The Room (2003): At the request of an old friend, I am going to watch what has been called out on Wikipedia as one of the worst films ever made. We’ll see how this baby compares to Battlefield Earth, which is also on the Wikipedia worst films list and which I will not watch again for any reason, ever.

Rear Window (1954): Nicole and I had planned to watch more Hitchcock films since our midnight screening of Frenzy at the Music Box last December. It should wash out the bad taste of some of the films I have seen recently.

That’s all for now. Try to do better about writing the next time.

13 Assasins (2010)

Dir. Takashi Miike, 121 minutes, Japanese with English subtitles

Nicole and I rode the bus up to the Music Box to see 13 Assassins which if nothing else has ensured that I can now correctly spell ‘assassins’ on the first attempt.

Miike, who is famous in these parts for directing Audition (2000) (which I still haven’t seen) brings together a story about a band of conspiratory samurai at the end of the feudal era in Japan. Led by aging samurai master Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), their mission is to decapitate local feudal lord Naritsugo (Gorô Inagaki) who is a demented torturer and rapist and wants to destroy the fragile peace that holds the shogunates together.

Sad to say, my knowledge of feudal Japan consists of playing a board game called Shogun with my brothers in grade school and watching the utterly terrible The Last Samurai (2003), which as I recall was about the industrial revolution era and only referenced the olden days of samurai and shoguns. I seem to recall a very cool Japanese television series that was about feudal Japan that I used to watch in high school on a public access channel, but I only caught it occasionally and never really understood what was going on.

Hence, jumping right into a film like this made me feel I was missing out on a lot, including various Bushido references and master/servant relationships. Added to that was the fact that this film has a lot of characters. Of the thirteen assassins, most of them have back stories, but some of those back stories are presented in quick, one line summaries. Overall though, the pervasive theme is that each of them wants a clean, honorable death in battle and not to wither away and die without glory.

The film is violent, but not excessively gory. Much of the sounds and facial expressions tell the story of pain and suffering, even during the most shocking of visuals. You can’t ask for much more in tasteful violence from a story whose first scene is a ritual disembowelment.

The final battle sequence lasts for well over half an hour, and involves, as Roger Ebert put it in his review, a series of “structured vignettes” in which each fighter gets his chance of taking on impossible odds. The plan against the shogunate lord is to turn a whole village into a boobytrapped “town of death” in order to compensate for the extreme mismatch (200 body guards versus 13 assassins). In terms of comparable western films, I can regrettably only think of The Thirteenth Warrior, which is not nearly as good; maybe it’s just that they both have thirteen in the title…

The martial arts action mostly involves swordplay and multiple beheadings, but is easy to follow and within the realm of the real, or as real as it gets when one guy fights a circle of thirty or so warriors around him. Notably absent are any women who do anything of consequence, but I’ll chalk that one up to the time period (if this had been a western film, there probably would have been a wisecracking Amazonian warrior who beats up a chauvinistic chump in act one). It’s nice to have a departure from the traditional summer action fare. If you have the time, I would recommend taking the trip out to the Music Box to check it out. On Mondays, shows are only $5, so I’m sure I’ll be back at some point over the summer!


Harsh Times (2005)

DIr. David Ayer, 116 min., Netfilx Instant

I’m not sure what I was expecting out of this film, but it wasn’t fanboy, wannabe, south-central LA gansta fiction.

Wow, that seems harsh, like the times I suppose. Two vets (I think–is Freddy Rodriguez’s character a vet?) are pretending to look for jobs but really drinking and getting high all day. In their spare time, they jack the local gangbangers for their cash and guns, then hustle hard around town trying to score cash and look impressive around their various lady friends.

The dialogue sounds like it was written by a team-up of Adam Sandler and Adam Carolla instead of David Ayer. The worst lines from Training Day all congregate in this film, and I think I heard a Chris Rock line from a comedy video about going to prison used as a serious line in the film (I won’t repeat it here).

Between crushing forties and smoking joints, these guys run up real problems, but things become unhinged when Davis’ (Christian Bale) girlfriend in Mexico reveals she’s pregnant right before he’s due to ship out as a NARC in Columbia. He flips out, pointing a gun at her and drinking his way through a drug mule run across the border. I won’t ruin the most exciting span of the film, since it takes only fifteen minutes to play out. The conclusion is exciting, but the emotional payoff is ultimately void due to the poor writing and subpar line delivery of the dyad charged with moving the plot forward.


Hannah (2011)

Dir. Joe Wright, 111 min., in theaters

I have to admit that having missed out on Atonement (2007), I don’t have too much of a basis for critiquing the style of Joe Wright’s films (the only other one I’ve seen being his 2005 Pride and Prejudice). However, after this film, I can say that whatever his style is, I like it.

Hannah (Saoirse Ronan), the daughter of Erik (Eric Bana) is stalked by Erik’s former handler, Marissa (Cate Blanchett). And that is about it in terms of plot. Sure there are typical spy developments on who is related to whom and how, but mostly it is just a great chase thriller where the only thing we need to know is that the spymaster wants the rouge agent and his daughter dead.

Spy films in general have too many characters. I was just talking to my students the other day about the minimalist aesthetic, and I think this is a genre that benefits from a few well developed characters. Certainly late act introductions and long screen absences make the plot harder to follow, but they also water down characters and make for a less interesting film.  No problems with that issue here, as the few supporting characters fill their temporary niches well and then disappear.

Marissa’s character is especially strong in this film, given that she could have easily been swallowed up by Ronan’s performance. Cate Blanchett channels a combination of the cold ambition of Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (2007), the personal eccentricities of an assassin exemplified by Javier Bardem from No Country for Old Men (2007), and the southern accent of Kira Sedgwick from The Closer (or maybe Jodie Foster from The Silence of the Lambs, but more gutsy).

The film in general reminded my wife and I of Run Lola Run (1998), probably because of the strong female protagonist, but also due to the dance club soundtrack that permeates the film. As nice as this film is to look at, the aural experience is even better. The sound editing was excellent in both the effects department and the soundtrack. I don’t recall hearing a single 1970’s classic rock hit, which always makes me a happy camper.

Ronan cuts a striking figure as a dangerous girl killer who flashes into moments of adolescent innocence and awkwardness. Her range in this film was impressive, and I now want to see Atonement (2007) all the more for her Academy Award nominated performance.

For every really bad spy film I sit through, there is at least one redeeming entry in the genre which keeps me coming back for more, and this film certainly falls into this category. I almost feel like it makes up for the terrible disappointment of Salt (2010), my last summer film from last year.


Ip Man (2008)

Dir. Wilson Yip, 106 min., on Netflix Instant

Ip Man tells the story of a Chinese martial arts master, and not the inventor of the Internet Protocol as I was let to believe.

Wow, rereading that first sentence, I sound like a Groupon ad copy writer. All stupidness aside, the film is about a martial artist before and during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Ip Man is a master of the fighting style known as Wing Chung (must fight Groupon style joke…argh…can’t hold back…as opposed to WANG CHUNG, GET IT, HAW HAW HAW HAW).

At first Ip Man (Donnie Yen) just enjoys the occasional bout with locals, but he eventually starts beating on a traveling group of renegade martial artists that roll into town and defeat every other skilled fighter. That whole sequence is essentially the first half of the film.

Once the Japanese show up, they start pitting soldiers (I assume they’re soldiers–it’s never fully explained) against former martial arts masters in town to prove once and for all that Japanese fighting styles are superior. There’s some buildup over the course of an hour or so, and a subplot that briefly reintroduces some pre-occupation characters, but most of it is window dressing for the final fight between Ip Man and the Japanese general.

In general, the martial arts in the film come off slightly fantastical. I like fighting films, but they are by no means my favorite type of film, so I can’t speak with too much authority on historical conventions. I know that samurai films typically have a fantastical element that has something to do with Japanese folklore, but in my experience, fighting films that focus on one particular style tend to be grounded in reality (the very notable exception I can recall is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)). This film doesn’t so much break the laws of physics as bend them in inexplicable ways: no one is flying from rooftop to rooftop, but there are several Matrix moments in the fight sequences.

The film is semi-biographical, which is a polite euphemism for lightly fictionalized, and what I like to call partially stuffed full of crap that attempts to make it more interesting and condense a person’s life history into a contiguous chain of events. Categorizations like that are always worthless anyway, as the film could have been 100% fictional and still worked just as well for anyone who didn’t know anything about this man’s life, a set of persons of which I am a part. If the film really was semi-biographical, the director might have eliminated one subplot which does practically nothing in terms of character development and spends 20 or so minutes as a setup for the film’s conclusion (if you watch or have watched the film, I am talking about the factory subplot).

Weak pacing really sabotages what would otherwise be a perfectly enjoyable film. This film reminded me a great deal of Fearless (2006), which was supposedly Jet Li’s final martial arts film, unless you count the seven he has made since then. The pacing in Fearless was superior in that the story had a superstructure that enabled the viewer to anticipate the redemptive arc. It’s backdrop as a semi-biographical also worked better in my opinion; this may have had to do with superior character development for the non titular character (which paradoxically leads to better development of the film’s subject).

In closing, the real test as I see it for a biopic is did I feel like I learned who the man or woman was by the end. In this case, I don’t feel like I understand any more about Ip Man than I could have gleaned from a quick scan of his Wikipedia page.