Summer Film Roundup

Safety Not Guaranteed
Dir. Colin Trevorrow, 86 min., Netflix Instant

Strongly disguised as a romcom, this film rarely does much to approach the time travel genre other than assembling a motley crew full of personal regrets. I failed to buy in to the outsider magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) finding anything in common with the Dwight-like time traveler (Jake Johnson). In the subplot, her chauvinistic (but secretly sensitive) boss and the Indian nerd intern (that, frankly and unfairly, stands in for every dork everywhere) have a debauched mentor/protege relationship in the frat boy sense, but that story line pans out with very few hijinks and a whole lot of the type of talk you expect to hear from your drunken uncle at the family picnic. *spoiler* WTF, the time machine works at the end?? So we were to believe that this was a serious time travel piece? What a disappointing ending.

AV Club: B
Dissolve: n/a
RT: 91%
me: C-


Only God Forgives
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 90 min., Netflix Instant

It’s hard to comment too much on this director’s style, given that I only know him from this film (he directed the critical darling Drive [2011]), but he must have gone to the Kubrickian school when he was filming this piece: the slow panning shots with the jarring sound bursts, the monochrome lighting and color scheme (though supposedly he is colorblind, a difficulty I can somewhat identify with), the cuts to mid-range shots of actors in silent relief. The cinematography is great; if only, as A.A. Dowd points out, there were real characters in the film. Everyone is more of a description than a well-defined person. Ryan Gosling, as an emasculated, Oedipal drug dealer, barely even speaks let alone emotes. He’s more of a mannequin posing for the shot (except for one animated moment with his hooker “girlfriend”). The stoical nature of the characters and lack of facial expressions comes off like a Greek morality play (strongly suggested by the bleak title), but the film’s coldness leaves the viewer cold in turn towards the eventual resolution.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 3/5
RT: 40%
me: C-


The Monuments Men
Dir. George Clooney, 118 min., Redbox

Clooney essentially presents us with “The Dime Store Ocean’s Eleven Crew Saves Art for the Rest of the Uncaring Idiots of the World Who Can’t Appreciate How Great it All Is.” So whereas I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan (1998) in a few years, I could recount five or six of the main cast members defining characteristics (and maybe even the actor names as well). I just watched this film a couple of hours ago and I couldn’t tell you one damn thing about anyone but the top three stars (Clooney, Damon, and Murray), and even then I didn’t get much to recount. The dialogue apes Ocean’s and the mission, while interesting and important, would definitely be better covered by a PBS documentary than a film, as most of the action is spaced out and jumps from city to city.

Sadly, unless you have more than a passing interest in the history of that period and have taken an art history course as well (as the film provides scant discussions of art other than the Judeo-Christian lionizing of important icons), it seems more like a random race across unknown landscapes to save objects that we are told are very important, but can’t really appreciate on much more than a superficial level. One thing is clear: America has everyone’s best interest in mind and will preserve artworks from not only our own destructive impulses, but those of everyone else who can’t comprehend the magnificence of art. That may have been true, but the film strongly paints our country as the “last best hope for man on earth.”.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 2/5
RT: 32%
me: D+

Well, that was a bunch or rotten onions. Hopefully the next crop tastes sweeter.

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.

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!


Iron Man 2 (2010)

Paramount, 124 minutes, Dir. John Favreau

You know you’re a dork when you’re trying to explain to your wife on the car ride home why a new element couldn’t possibly be represented by the holographic projection that Tony Stark is viewing in his laboratory in Iron Man 2. But this revelation is no surprise to anyone reading this.

Despite it’s numerous scientific flaws, which admittedly one must overlook in order to enjoy a movie about a dude that flies around in an impenetrable suit and has a futuristic battery in his chest, IM2 falls short on so many aesthetic levels, which I will list here.

One: The film is a star delivery system. The screenplay fails to provide adequate lines and backstory for most of the characters played by major Hollywood actors. I still don’t understand why the hell Samuel L. Jackson was in this film.

Two: Apart from special effects wizardry, the cool technology developments are largely unexplained. Tony Stark erecting what looks to be a particle collider that shoots an energy stream out of a hole in the side that hits what looks to be a miniature middle school band triangle does not explain how he develops a new element. I love cheezy comic book science, but I like it to have some kind of connection with the plot, which was too much to ask in this film.

Three: Why is the role of “Rhodey” played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard? Think we wouldn’t notice?? Just like Matrix two, eh?? Wrong, my friend.

Four: Hey writers (this includes you, Stan Lee), the Cold War ended a while ago. Hence, the forced Russo-American arms race tensions seem a bit outdated. Is this a Tom Clancy novel?

This is the point where I would expand on the plot, but there isn’t really much to say. Stark (Downey Jr.) predicts that he alone will maintain “the peace” (even though we see nothing in the way of global peace initiatives or Iron Man’s hand in monitoring global peace–was there a war to begin with?), and then foolishly betrays the world’s trust by getting hammered at his birthday party in the Iron Man suit, which is probably one of the funniest scenes in the film. It all sounds very colonial, seeing as it’s once again the mighty U.S. alone (and a playboy millionaire at that) who will force the world’s haters into submission. This movie really only works if you suppress the urge to think about why anything is happening.

An 80’s style Soviet Cold War scientist emerges to avenge himself against the west for ruining his father’s dreams of becoming a bourgeois fat cat. One of the best lines: “after he was deported, he spent the next 20 years in Siberia in a vodka fueled rage.” Sweet. Way to flatten out the characters into razor thin caricatures.

I guess what sold me on the original Iron Man is that Stark undergoes an exercise in humility where he is forced to use raw talent and guile to outwit his opponents, and then reflect on the monster he created through his involvement in the military-industrial complex. It’s spelled out in huge letters, but the film has a point. This movie is Stark’s character delivering one idiotic one liner after another, and Downey Jr. brings a halfhearted performance. In part, the timing of this film may be off; I doubt there are too many people who care to watch the personal life problems of a billionaire playboy lamenting over his having to assume responsibility for the mess he created through his self-righteous arrogance.

4/10: He should really be called “Synthetic-Alloy-Wisecracking Man” in my opinion

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

Vampire films are all allusions to the original: Dracula by Bram Stoker. As an English major undergraduate at UIUC, I was required to take a class called “Major Authors.” I had my choice of Bram Stoker/Oscar Wilde, or George Elliot (who, like Dave Eggers, I probably thought was a man at the time). I’m not sure what I missed out on, but judging by some of my friends who had to read Middlemarch, I think I made the correct call.

With the explosion of interest in serialized vampire novels kicked off by The Vampire Chronicles and Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice, vampires appear much less like the demonic cavern dwellers of Nosferatu (1922) and much more like various superhero incarnations, each new series having to set out the rules, or as they should now be called, the super powers that vampires possess over us blood banks. In the Twilight chronicles for instance, male vampires must unbutton their shirts halfway and pretend to be James Dean.

Cirque du Freak is no different. Vampires in this world can move super fast, slash things with their fingernail claws, and emit a noxious gas that incapacitates humans (with a deliberately open ended line of dialogue that leaves the possibility open for even more super powers).

As the title suggests, a boy has a “chance” encounter with a vampire (John C. Riley) who is a major player in one camp of vampires along with a character played by Willem Defoe. They are the retired leaders of the anti-killing humans camp, or “vampires.” Then there are the “vampaneese” who still kill humans when feeding, and quarell with the vampires, but are currently kept at bay by a tenuous truce which the Cirque, a traveling freak show, somehow (inexplicably) maintains.

The movie plays around this central tension and develops characters quite well, but ultimately comes across as a sequel delivery system. It took until a few minutes into the climactic fight sequence at the end of the film for me to realize that this was the climactic fight sequence. I don’t think it was the fault of the writer/director Paul Weitz, so much as it was the fact that this is poised as an opening chapter in a series from the first five minutes of the film. The voice-over delivered by the protagonist (Chris Massoglia) reminded me a great deal of the first Spiderman movie for some reason, and it eventually drops off to give way to the action of the plot.

Of course, a good versus evil binary emerges that will no doubt play out in a sequel, if there ever is one. This film scored low on RT and Metacritic, so who knows if it will ever see another incarnation. It seems that a lot of films are made on the assumption that a sequel will resolve the plot and tie up any loose ends. That might work for adaptations with a huge fan base (Harry Potter), but this film feels like a television pilot that may never get picked up. Not only that, the story seemed so rushed and condensed that I feel like it must have hardly done justice to the first book in the series. Seeing as this is a twelve book saga, I doubt that the collective capitalistic dream of making twelve movies to go along with the books will ever come true.

6/10: one, two, three, four, five, six…six vampires, bwah ha ha ha

Note: If you are looking for a better performance as a vampire by Willem Dafoe, and generally a much better vampire film, check out Daybreakers (2009).

Note 2: I’m switching to using Google Draw for future illustrations

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Much like Hook (1991), Alice in Wonderland sends an aged protagonist back to a fantasy land in an amnesiac state to resolve an unfinished conflict from his and her first visit, respectively. Hook by all critics’ accounts was an abomination of a classic fairytale (22% on, but damn it I liked it. There was tension between a middle class, overworked family man and his neglected children, who Robin Williams (the perennial man-child) must reconcile with through a reversion to childlike innocence that he lost in the damnable workaday world.

Alice in Wonderland offers us nothing close to this level of complexity, other than the tomboyish Alice living a century in the future in her ideals, which all live action Disney protagonists seem to do as a repentance for the widespread misogyny of the corporation’s animated features. The line “I don’t believe in corsets” reminds me all too much of Keira Knightly’s line in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003):


That hurt


With a defiant look on her face

Try wearing a corset!

In short, there is no pretext for a revisit to Wonderland, much like there was no pretext for other Tim Burton remakes (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)). Mr. Burton has shown his penchant for remaking pop culture mythology (see his fabulous Batman and Batman Returns) but he perhaps relies too much on his writers to deliver him a script worth following, and there is no question about his over-reliance on CGI in this film. There was once a day, that is embedded in our collective nostalgia, where real actors were called upon to gesticulate, emote, and suffer ludicrous makeup and wardrobes in order to present an otherworldly image of fantastic brilliance which captivated our attention for two hours. In a sentence, the death of such an era in this film may be summed up as follows: “one of the best performances was Helena Bonham Carter’s voice.”

Motion capture when combined with CGI may prove a valuable tool for filmmakers (see my review of Avatar), but it is far from perfected. In general, acting performances were lukewarm with no real convincing or endearing charcters, John Depp’s Mad Hatter least of all. No amount of sashaying or, regrettably, break dancing, can make the screenwriting any better than it is.

I won’t go so far as to point out the historical inaccuracies in gender politics (you can ask me in person if you care), but it seems like no thought at all was put into the framing device for Alice’s journey. At best, giving the writer (Linda Woolverton) the benefit of the doubt as she wrote for classics such as Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), there may have been an editor who chopped this segment of the movie to hell; however, the writing is unforgiving and the lines are delivered in the modern style of “sponge in mouth” a.k.a. “mouthful of cookies” so that half the movie is unintelligible. A disappointment to be sure:

3/10: Redbox/Netflix only, and only during summer