Herbie vs. Superman

Herbie Man of Steel

Recently watched, on the same day, both Man of Steel and Herbie: Fully LoadedMan of Steel is the recent Superman reboot, featuring the lantern-jawed Henry Cavill as the titular hero punching his way around the U.S. fighting General Zod.  Herbie: Fully Loaded is the decade-old Herbie reboot, featuring the titular zany car once again winning races and hitting ne’er-do-wells with his doors.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films arrive atop a pile of earlier movies, and have to figure out how to define themselves in the new context.  Herbie assumes continuity, imagining that all the previous Herbie films happened and this is the next moment in the life’s car.  Man of Steel starts over, beginning a new cycle of Superman movies.
  • The burden of parental obligations is high in these films, with Jar-El (Russel Crowe) expecting that Cal will become the savior of the human race and of Krypton, and with Payton (Michael Keaton) expecting that Maggie will not lie to him or engage in illicit street racing.
  • Both films use too much computer graphics.  It’s inevitable in a super-hero movie, but the squiggy spaceships and nano-tech arm-claw things in Man of Steel were not to my taste.  Equally annoying were the few times they made Herbie digital — as when he waggles his whole chassis at Matt Dillon, a moment my children thought was hilarious.
  • The untold stories at the heart of these films are key as well — what happened to Clark between his adolescence and his appearance as a crab fisherman?  Like Jesus, he goes from being 12 to being 32.  Maggie, too, has a dark past in which she totaled a car on a tree in her street-racing days.  Yikes!

And regarding the films separately:

  • Herbie was a cute film, with enough poignancy and real story to give the adults something to hang onto, and with enough slapstick for the kids to like.  Michael Keaton is underused, and Herbie falls in love with a modern Beetle.  When they leave to go on a date, Avery theorized that they were going to a car wash.
  • Man of Steel was better than I thought it was going to be, but horrific toward the end.  The New York-wrecking finale of The Avengers had nothing on Man of Steel, in which thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people died while two superhumans battled it out.  Really, Supe?  You couldn’t lead the guy away from the population center?  You had to drag his face across the side of a sky-scraper?

Herbie: Fully Loaded – recommended, especially if you have to watch a movie with diverse child ages

Man of Steel – Meh, recommended for a lazy afternoon where you want to see some flyin’ and some punchin’.

 

Sappy vs. Humor/horror – Simon Birch and Frankenweenie

Simon Birch Frankenweenie

Simon Birch and Frankenweenie

Every now and again, I page through the upcoming movies on the channels we get to see what might be worth recording for a casual future viewing.  This net caught both films reviewed here today. Frankenweenie expands Tim Burton’s famous early film (which Disney did not like, at the time) about a boy who brings his dog back from the dead.  It’s a low dramatic arc with high drama and a good story. It’s also full of truly funny animation. Simon Birch is a famously maligned tear-jerker from the late 90s that adapts one of my favorite novels (A Prayer for Owen Meany) by cutting it in half and distilling out the complexity with sap.

A few thoughts on these tales:

  • We have, in these two films, a clash of worldviews.  Neither stories want us to accept death as a random shitty fact of life, but rather to understand it in the larger context as either something God wants or science will help us overcome.
  • Both tales cut significant lessons from their source texts. Frankenweenie dodges the problem of scientific ethics by infusing love as one of the ingredients.  Victor’s experiment worked because he loved his dog, whereas the monsters created by the other experimenters were not loved in the same way.  Shelley’s horror at the dangers of science go missing from the tale. Simon Birch dodges the complexity of its title character by making him a saintly martyr, confident in his life because God has a plan for him.  Irving’s novel gives its title character much more complexity, makes him a regular person with all sorts of faults.Both films stand on a scaffold of old tropes, as well.
  • Simon Birch uses so many tear-jerker cliches, you’ll want your bingo card out.  We have the heroic disadvantaged person, a romantic/ expressionist world where God shines His love down via swirling leaves (hence making October the holiest month), stereotypical bullies, tweenage boy resentful of his mother’s suitor, lingering by gravestones, and the dramatic sacrifice that Makes It All Worth It. Frankenweenie uses old tropes in a winking way, rewarding fans of old Universal horror films with character names, set pieces, plot points, and other references.  My favorite, a dramatic chase that leads to a flaming windmill.
  • I love the casts of both films. Frankenweenie employs to great effect the voices of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, and Winona Ryder.  Meanwhile, Simon Birch surrounds the eponymous protagonist with Joseph Mazello (the boy from Jurassic Park), Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, Jan Hooks, David Strathairn, and Dana Ivey as grand mother (a character actress you’d recognize as “offended upper-class lady” from all sorts of movies).

Frankenweenie is worth a watch, a cute evocation of old movies that has both cleverness and heart.  Simon Birch has solid Oliver Platt time, which is always a good thing, but is otherwise just the schmaltzy tale you probably thought it was.  Go read A Prayer for Owen Meany instead.  It’s probably more schmaltzy than I remember, but it’s also certainly better than the film.

J. Edgar and the Imaginarium

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus J. Edgar

J. Edgar is a complex biopic that shows the multifaceted life led by the egotistical and patriotic J. Edgar Hoover.  The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus tells a fairy tale of an immortal man in a struggle with the devil, a kind-of Dr. Faustus story for the 21st century, but with Heath Ledger.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films follow complex men who’ve done good things and bad, selfish things and stupid ones.  The people around them pay for their actions, and the secrets they keep hurt people.  But where Dr. Parnassus seems to have made his bed for no reason other than his own ego, J. Edgar believes himself driven by patriotism.
  • It’s the people around them who suffer for their egos.  Dr. Parnassus seems unaware or unable to help his cast of goofy players, his daughter, or the strange man with a mysterious past they find hanging under a bridge.  J. Edgar builds up a cadre of allies who love him and respect him, even if his ego leads him down a path of madness later in his life.
  • Both films also use flashback effectively to set the stage for the present, though J. Edgar works in flashback far more than does Dr. Parnassus.
  • But both our protagonists wrestle with demons as well.  Hoover, famously, was haunted by his own homosexual proclivities — something he believed to be a personal failing.  Imagine what a different life he’d have led if he were born today.  Or perhaps he still would have been an egomaniacal control freak, he just would have been able to live openly with his lover.  By contrast, Dr. Parnassus wrestles with the literal devil, a foppish tempter (played brilliantly by Tom Waits) who enjoys the bets they make so much that when he’s on the verge of winning one, he offers a new bet.
  • Both films also feature strong, compelling performances from young actors already known for greatness.  Ledger’s intensity fits Dr. Parnassus well, with both a gleam of glee and of deception in his eye. For his part, DiCaprio plays Hoover brilliantly, capturing both sides of the figure and bringing empathy to the man even as we see him doing awful things.

A nod goes also to Ledger’s co-stars in Imaginarium.  After Ledger’s death, Gilliam re-wrote the remaining script to give the character a mercurial shifting face during his sequences in the fantasy world behind the stage.  The shifts to his other faces (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel, and Jude Law) in the Imaginarium is so seemless, I nearly wrote about his acting work in those scenes, before remembering that these other men had done those scenes.  Gilliam reported that the post-production sound designer thought the original script had been written with the face-changes in place.  Anyhow, given Ledger’s history, it is a good, if obscure, film for him to ‘go out on.’

Beware the honeyed words of Tom Waits
Beware the honeyed words of Tom Waits

Both movies are what they appear to be and, in that regard, likely do exactly what their audiences expect they will do.  To see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, one likely knows Gilliam’s work and is willing to dive headlong into his flights of fancy (though I’d say this movie feels more like 1990s-era Jean Paul Jeunet than most of Gilliam’s earlier work). To watch J. Edgar is to dive into classic biopic territory, with the modern nuance of complicated people highlighting the ups and downs of Hoover’s life.

Covering old ground – Zero Theorem and The Incredible Hulk

Incredible Hulk Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem tells the tale of an idiosyncratic office drone working a data analysis job in the cyberpunk, blade-runner future of the city we first met in Brazil. (Not technically, but aesthetically.)  Not satisfied with the normal things that drive the other drones in his world, Qohen spends his time waiting for a phone call that will change his life.  The Incredible Hulk follows the continuing adventures of Bruce Banner, the title monster, as he tries to solve the problem of his errant Id and avoid being captured or killed by the U.S. Army.

While both films were enjoyable, they both also felt rehashed, like movies I’d seen before gussied up with new sparkly bits.  A few bits about this repetition before I discuss the two films together:

Zero Theorem feels very much like a spiritual re-make or reconception of Brazil.  Here are some overlaps:

  • Qohen and Sam (the protagonist from Brazil) both excel at their jobs but have no ambition to ‘rise’ in the ranks.
  • They have competent but skeezy supervisors (David Thewlis; Ian Holm).
  • Both men are menaced by sinister forces of bureaucracy (Management’s clone thugs; Heating and Cooling repair)
  • They have dreamy thoughts of lovely women in their lives, and seem to see this as an escape from the drudgery they’re confined to. (Bainsley, Jill)
  • Both films exaggerate the aesthetic of their era — 1985’s Brazil overflowed with papers and files.  It felt like a hell spawned from the cubicle farms of the 1980s workplaces.  Zero Theorem‘s aesthetic is to the Internet as Brazil’s was to the office.

In a similar way, The Incredible Hulk feels like a revisiting of Hulk, despite the fact that it’s actually framed as a sequel.  Rather than detail all the similarities, I’ll just say that it feels like a sequel in the way bad horror movie sequels are just a revised version of the first film.  While The Incredible Hulk ups the ante by including a big bad for Hulk to fight, it doesn’t do much more. (Though it does explain what Banner meant in The Avengers when he talked about busting up a big section of New York.  Having seen the film, though, he’s over-doing it a bit by taking all the blame there.)

Zero Theorem
The iPhone20Q will come with a pointy hat attachment. (Zero Theorem)

A few thoughts about the two films together:

  • Both our protagonists are hiding among cultures they don’t belong to.  Banner, of course, is hiding out of necessity and will eventually return to his own culture.  Qohen is the opposite, alienated from the people and culture around him, he seeks refuge in online spaces.
  • Both men aren’t sure what to do with the technology they’re developing.  It seems that if Qohen solves the problem he’s working on, everything will be for nought.  Similarly, if Banner solves the problem of the hulk monster, the government may use it to make more super soldiers.
  • The ancillary scientists in the film have the annoying stereotype of the scientist so into his studies that he abandons reason and ethics.  The assistant, “Bob,” in Zero Theorem shows this kind of mania, as does Tim Blake Nelson’s scientist character in The Incredible Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk is an enjoyable B-movie sequel, a good flick to watch on a Sunday afternoon while you do a crossword puzzle or something.  Zero Theorem is an enjoyable art-house movie, a good film to watch on a Friday evening while you enjoy a fine wine (or, in my case, small-brewery soda).

Spies and psychics (double movie review)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Odd Thomas

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Odd Thomas

A double review is a review of two movies united only by the fact that I watched them around the same time.  That’s what this is.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic cold-war era spy story based on the novel by John Le Carre.  It’s meditative and brilliantly acted, with lots of staring out windows and 1970s haircuts.  In fact, it feels like a throwback to movies like The Conversation or The Ipcress File.  Basic plot? British intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with rooting out the mole from among the “Circus,” the highest level of MI6.

Odd Thomas feels like an introductory movie meant to spawn a television show.  It’s a very well made B movie with a solid cast (including Willem Defoe).  It’s your standard “beginning of a series” movie with lots of exposition to explain the psychic Odd Thomas to us, and to introduce the scary aspects of the world around him.  What follows is your usual supernatural detective story movie about all hell being unleashed, and the endangered hero doing his darndest to stop it.

Now for the synergy — what do you get when you watch these movies together?

  • Both films involve a lot of deception and double- or triple-bluffing.  Characters have hidden motives, aren’t who they appear to be, and hide things even from their friends.  Spies and mysteries both hinge on this sort of business, as it makes for exciting storytelling.
  • Both films build on aesthetics of other similar stories.  As I mentioned above, Tinker Tailor draws on the aesthetic and storytelling style of the intellectual 1970s, giving the viewer plenty to think about and offering little in the way of signposting.  Odd Thomas buys into the goofy aesthetic of shows like Pushing Daisies and the lamented lost Wonder Falls.
  • Montages — the films both use montages to solid effect.  Odd starts with a fast-paced linear exposition montage that gives us many of the characters and settings of the world within the first ten minutes or so.  Tinker Tailor ends with a fantastic epilogue via montage by way of a foreign-language version of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea.”

And the differences?

  • Despite the fact that these two movies were made at around the same time, they couldn’t have more opposed visual styles.  Where Tinker Tailor uses languid, almost immobile cameras and long shots to set the mood, Odd Thomas uses the frenetic editing style one might call “Lock, Stock Syndrome.”  It works for the jaunty tone of the film, but it’s still strikingly different than the British spy movie.
  • Odd Thomas also takes pains to make sure you understand what’s going on.  Oddie, as his girlfriend calls him, is constantly explaining what’s going on.  The film does this even to the point of disrupting truly creepy scenes by giving him telephone conversations with his girlfriend.

Both films are worth watching, but where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cinematic event, to be watched with the lights off and phone muted, Odd Thomas feels like a good B-movie, an evening of television both enjoyable and lighthearted.

Ice, Magic, and Studly dudes: Frozen and Thor 2 double review

Frozen Thor 2: The Dark World

It’s been a while since I posted one of these double reviews, but I got a chance to see a couple movies over the holiday break, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Frozen tells the story of two sisters who are princesses, one is cursed with ice powers that she cannot control, the other left isolated after a close call with said powers.  Thor: The Dark World follows the continuing adventures of Thor as he fights some dark elves trying to unmake all of creation (except, presumably, themselves, somehow).  A few thoughts (and a few spoilers):

  • Both films have beefy but good-hearted leading men who keep to themselves and suave villains who appear to be helping the heroes but have deeper motives than we expect.
  • Both films feature a leading lady cursed with a mysterious power inside her that lashes out at people who threaten her, whether she wants it to or not.
  • Each film follows a narrative in which the brave heroes must risk everything to save their world from destroyed (either by being frozen forever or unmade entirely).

There are some key differences as well:

  • Thor 2 is peopled almost entirely with men.  We have four women of note (Portman’s character, her assistant, Thor’s warrior friend, and his mom).  Each does good work moving the story forward, but Portman still spends much of the movie as a pawn.  The good folks at Wham Bam Pow pointed out, quite rightly, that the queen (Renee Russo) kicks ass in this movie, and surprisingly so.  Too bad she wasn’t a little less merciful.    Frozen, by contrast, gives almost all the narrative to women resolving problems on their own.  It’s refreshing, especially after the less-than-amazing Brave.  There’s a particularly satisfying set of circumstances at the end of the movie that utterly defy the usual tropes for a Disney princess film.
  • The villains in the film also couldn’t be more different.  Where Frozen confronts an internal dilemma and the wild hostility of scared crowds, Thor 2 provides a host of high-tech dark elves (having teleported straight up from Menzoberranzan) who want to unmake the universe because they used to be in charge, or something.  They do this with a T2 liquid effect called Aether.

Both films are enjoyable and both have their flaws.  Thor 2 is about as good as the last one, with some great humor and amusing moments, but not too memorable beyond that.  Oh, Loki is in it and is quite enjoyable. Frozen is a bit slow, especially in the beginning, as a lot of the problems actually stem from real character issues rather than monsters or physical danger.  But its end makes it worth seeing.

Humans, Robots, and the Future: Oblivion and Pacific Rim

pacific-rim-poster oblivion-poster

I saw two science fiction films in the last month: Oblivion and Pacific Rim.  Both films explore humankind on the brink of extinction, but where one focuses on a single person and his experience uncovering those dangers, the other has giant robots punching giant squiddy monsters.

Oblivion follows the harrowing adventures of a technician and his “control” person who must service probe/drones and protect the giant ocean funnels from the villainous “scavs.”  The Earth has been made a wasteland by the destroyed moon, and things are bad, bad, bad.  Tom Cruise is the “cleanup crew,” left to mop up until the launch to Titan.  Of course, things aren’t exactly what they seem.  Fortunately, the trailer gives away a lot less than one might originally have thought.  And though the film is a lot more talky than I thought it would be, I liked it okay.  At the same time, there are serious problems with the gender relations in the film. (See below.)

Pacific Rim is the opposite of talky.  It’s big robots punching big lizard things, without much else to say for it.  Some of the actors seem to understand that it’s a funny movie, but it misses some things as well.

A few thoughts about these films together:

  • Both films involve worlds with untold loss of life and human suffering, but most of it is off screen, so we’re concerned more with the people we see.
  • Cool tech reigns throughout.  Where Pacific Rim focuses on Iron-Man and Transformers-style machines, Oblivion‘s technology looks like Apple meets Ikea.
  • Love stories come into the picture, but Pacific Rim‘s is dumb.  Oblivion’s love story works okay for me.  Well done.
  • Both films ultimately revolve around humankind’s unpleasant encounter with aliens, and their greedy desire for our luscious, watery world.  Minor spoiler: Both also draw on the self-sacrificing hero trope.
  • Veteran actors with suave and flair appear in both films — Ron Perlman as the black-market monster merchant, and Morgan Freeman as the leader of the human resistance.  Both wore cool glasses, though Ron Perlman’s metal-tipped shoes give him that extra je ne sais quoi.
  • Both films remind me of Top GunOblivion because Maverick keeps asking for permission to fly here or there and despite being denied permission does it anyway; Pacific Rim because there’s another Jaeger driver who gets all up in the main character’s face and tells him he’s a danger to everyone else out there.  I expected him to snap his teeth, Iceman style.

ron-perlman-in-pacific-rim_original Morgan-Freeman-in-Oblivion-2013-Movie-Image

Both films are enjoyable for different reasons.  Pacific Rim revels in robots punching monsters, Oblivion is a bit more brainy, but has lovely visuals.  I recommend the Wham, Bam, Pow episode where they discuss PR for some specifics, many of which I echo below.

Little complaints, the sort of thing I do for every SF movie.  SPOILERS AHOY!

Pacific Rim

  • There’s a major suspension of disbelief necessary to accept the basic premise of the movie, that giant robots powered by people inside them are the best way to fight the big lizards.
  • On top of that, there are a number of design elements that just seem silly — the slow power-up weapons, the placing of pilots in literal heads on the top of the machines, the body-motion controls.
  • I was also disappointed that we never got to see the successful Jaeger pilots in action.  The Russian and Chinese teams were supposed to be amazing, but we only got to see them in one fight when they got their asses handed to them.

Oblivion

  • I thought, going in, that the trailer had given away the many secrets of the film, but the second half of the film had some really great moments.  I’m glad I watched Oblivion.
  • That said, any evil force that wants to wipe out humankind to take over the Earth would much more likely use the Battlefield Earth invasion model than something so complicated and resource-instensive as blowing up the moon and cloning millions of Toms Cruise.   (In BE, the Travoltas send a small flotilla of invulnerable ships to slowly orbit in the upper atmosphere, dropping poison into the atmosphere and smothering humankind in a month.  Way more efficient.)
  • I was also a little annoyed to see shades of the White Messiah storyline appear when Tom Cruise finds the people hiding in the bunker.  Also, given what he knows about the technology his bosses use, he was pretty sloppy in returning to the base.  Lame.
  • Last, as Cameron Esposito points out in a genius rant in episode seven of Wham, Bam, Pow, this movie is incredibly misogynistic in the usual ways Hollywood movies are — it has very few female characters, and gives them very little to do.  It’s not unlike World War Z in that way.  Do listen to episode 7 of WBP for an excellent takedown of the film.

Zombies on the run. No Blood. Fun for the whole family.

World War Z
World War Z

No need to compare or discuss the minimal overlap between the book and the film.  Best just consider this as its own thing.  See The Oatmeal for the best, most concise discussion of this conversion thus far.**  See Scott Kenemore’s blog for a great review and discussion of the film and its narrative.

World War Z tells the story of a fast-zombie outbreak that wreaks havoc on the world without shedding blood or making anyone swear. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a  UN investigator, gets the task of finding the cause and perhaps the cure to the zombie outbreak.  He flies around the world to do it.

A few thoughts:

  • The bulk of this movie (the first two-thirds, certainly) involve Lane running from near catastrophe, and in that regard it reminds me very much of the movie version of War of the Worlds, in which Tom Cruise’s character survives not by skill but by chance and luck.  The same goes for Lane throughout the movie.
  • Kenemore makes the point that this movie does a good job, throughout, of drawing strong connections between Lane and his family.  Mireille Enos plays her part solidly, though she gets saddled with tying a yellow ribbon round the tree while Lane charges into the fray, however reluctantly. Kenemore suggested that this family angle is new, while I would argue the family dynamics at play in 28 Weeks Later are equally compelling (though they reflect a more human kind of failing).
  • Kenemore also observes that the zombies in this film act like a force of nature, swarming over obstacles and running over rooftops like champion parkour enthusiasts.  It’s a good point, and a thrilling aspect of the film.  This isn’t entirely dissimilar from the flock-hunting zombies in Stephen King’s Cell, but those zombies had a more developed group instinct.
  • When I described the film to my wife, she raised a key point that also applies to the rage virus in Boyle’s non-zombie zombie movies: aren’t zombies supposed to eat people?  The zombies in this film exist entirely to infect living people — not to eat them.  This allows for the film to maintain its PG13 rating by plausibly minimizing the amount of blood on screen, but it also makes the zombies something entirely different than those in most films: non-lethal. (Of course, being bitten makes you turn, and then you’re undead, kind of.  But we can deal with that later.)
  • My biggest complaint with the film is the way the authorities, who seem to know that some people take hours to turn instead of seconds, have very few or NO measures in place to quarantine the potentially-infected.  This becomes especially relevant in the Israel sequence, where it’s clear that someone who made it inside the gate with a mild infection and then turned would overrun the security.

Overall, World War Z is an enjoyable zombie film with a solid story and some interesting elements.  It isn’t the best zombie movie ever, but it definitely falls into the “should watch” category for me.

** I’ll write a bit about the book and the movie tomorrow.

 

 

Robots, Pointy Ears, and Tiny, Tiny Leaf Soldiers

Memorial Day weekend was busy for us, not only because we were doing a significant retro-fit of our basement following the great Forest Park rainstorm of early May, but also because we saw three movies in the theater that weekend.  Here’s my triple review of Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Epic

Epic Star Trek: Into Darkness Iron Man 3

There will be blood spoilers.

Quick plot synopses first:

  • Iron Man 3 was a meditation on capitalism, bio-engineering, and the media’s role in the fight against terrorists and global panics.  And there were a lot of robots fighting with genetically-engineered supermen.  I still think they should have used my proposal for the sequels.
  • Star Trek: Into Darkness was a meditation on war, bio-engineering, and the nature of peace in a time of danger and destruction.  And there was a lot of fighting between humans, spaceships, and a genetically-engineered superman.
  • Epic was a meditation on heroism, tradition, and the forest.  And there were lots of leaf men fighting with, um, rot bugs?  I don’t know.

A few thoughts (like I said, spoilers ahead):

  • Irresponsible boy-men continue to be the centers of these movies.  Kirk, Tony, and Nod all have an excess of talent and a lack of responsibility to use it well.  It’s essentially a roiling pile of privilege.  It would have been good to see each film use Ben Folds’ “Rockin the Suburbs” somewhere in the film. (To be fair, Tony moves pretty quickly into the remorseful, responsible mode in this film, but it’s the same narrative as all three IM movies.)
  • While there are moments for women in Epic, Iron Man, and Star Trek, none are very significant or compelling.  I look forward to the day when movies like Brave won’t get press simply for having a female lead.  Sigh.  I don’t think any of the films pass the Bechdel test (though perhaps Epic, since the Queen and MK discuss the future of the forest and not how cute Nod is).
  • One of the movies has no significant twists in the plot, the other each have two solid twists.  Of the twists, only the first of the twists in Iron Man was a surprise to me.  The others were all, I’m afraid, telegraphed far in advance and thus not a surprise.
  • Despite my grouchy complaining here, I liked all three movies quite a bit.  I found them charming and enjoyable, and while I was watching I turned off my critical whiner and enjoyed myself quite a bit.  Good show(s).

Most importantly, all three films will, I am absolutely sure, fail to follow up in any significant way on a world-changing scientific discovery.  Epic reveals a scientist who discovers that the life and death of forests depends on a race of tiny people who look like leaves.  This challenges the very foundation of modern forestry and several branches of science.  It will not be part of the future sequel (though we can hope).   Iron Man 3 explains, at the end, that Tony “solved” the addiction problem for the genetic repair drug at the center of the film.  I suspect we won’t see the future Marvel movies reflect that fact that a wonder healing drug has been invented.  The same goes for Star Trek: Into Darkness, where Bones’ synthesis of Kahn’s blood could literally bring Kirk back from the dead.*  If this isn’t in mass production by ST3, I’m gonna be darn angry.

See also: my meditation on Iron Man and Michael Jackson

*Thanks to Rolfe for pointing out this crucial observation for me.

Game Hard (OR: Die Change)

A Good Day to Die Hard
A Good Day to Die Hard

Game Change
Game Change

A Good Day to Die Hard (GDDH) follows the adventures of John MacClaine as he tries to get his son out of some gangster-related trouble in Russia.  The film makes knowing winks toward the other films in the series, mostly along the lines of “I’m too old for this shit.”  There is one moment where one of the criminals growls at Bruce Willis “This isn’t 1986 anymore.”

Game Change (GC) is one of HBO’s docu-dramas about recent events.  The film follows the meteoric rise of Sarah Palin to the national stage and her downfall as a serious contender for national office.  The film has all the political backroomery of an Aaron Sorkin film without the righteous undercurrent that gives his stuff the frisson of passion.

A few thoughts about these two films together:

  • Both films follow the classic formulas of their genres– GDDH remembers the first pair of Die Hard movies (I want the plural to be not Die Hards but Dies Hard), in that it puts MacClaine out of his jurisdiction, ostensibly “on vacation.”  They eschew Christmastime, which is a mistake, but include lots of the tropes of the genre, including the bloody “Bruce Willis face,” an overconfident thieving villain, and a scene with broken glass all over the floor.  Game Change feels a lot like other political movies about the contemporary era (C.F. Primary Colors and W).  Being aimed at the “highbrow” HBO crowd, it aims for a more talkie style, but otherwise works well.
  • The lead ladies in each film deceive everyone with innocent acts — Palin emerges early in the film as very successful at bringing in crowds and money, even if her grasp of the politics is poor.  The villainess in GDDH is equally crafty, shifting back and forth along different valences as the film moves along.
  • Similarly, the men in both films seem too old for their jobs.  While John MacClain, like Bruce Willis, seems to have stalled out the aging process but complains of being too old for Die Hard shenanigans, McCain comes off as ineffectual, uninformed, and old.
  • In the acting department, the films meet their quotas nicely, but only Game Change gives its actors a chance to really stretch.  In particular, Julianne Moore does a commendable job bringing empathy to a woman whose public statements make her very unsympathetic (at least to me).  Game Change tells a tale of hubris, in which Palin goes from unassuming and shy to overconfident and aggressive.  While she’s sympathetic early on, her arrogance eliminates that sympathy right quickly.

Ultimately, both films play to their base.  I thought A Good Day to Die Hard was enjoyable, but as much for being a familiar old friend as for being a film in its own right.  As an action movie, it’s mediocre.  Game Change had the same appeal — it pushes the same buttons that led me to enjoy both The West Wing and Too Big to Fail, but it’s neither a great movie nor one that will appeal outside its target demographic.

 

Silver Linings in Paris

Midnight in Paris
Midnight in Paris

Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook and Midnight in Paris

Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of two troubled people, unsure of themselves and having difficulty working through traumatic events in their past (plus mental instability), who come together and find their way to a silver lining. Ahem.  Midnight in Paris follows a writer obsessed with the artistic romance of the city who discovers a secret cab ride that allows him to travel back in time to the roaring 1920s, when all his favorite artists and writers were living in the city of lights.  Each night, he journeys back to them and finds spiritual fulfillment on his walks at midnight in Paris.  Ahem.

A few thoughts about these films:

  • Both movies follow men unsure of themselves and struggling to find their way, but where Bradley Cooper’s disequilibrium comes from his recent stay in an asylum, Owen Wilson’s seems to spring from his disquiet over his own talent.
  • Both films challenge viewers to look forward rather than back.  The characters come to see that dwelling in the past prevents healing and progress, and ultimately suggest that the past we think we cherish doesn’t exist at all.
  • Both movies thrive because of their supporting casts, but SLP has a tighter group than does MiP.
  • The cities at the heart of the films also take a key place in the narrative, particularly Paris.

I really liked Midnight in Paris and was less enamored of Silver Linings Playbook.  I enjoy character-development films in which people grow, but I find them less compelling when the deep acting moments need to be prompted by devices like making the characters mentally unstable.  Comparing Silver Linings Playbook to another crisis movie like Jeff, Who Lives at Home, I feel the tension created by the mental imbalance gets in the way rather than helping.

Doing Illegal Things Badly

30 Minutes or Less Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare and 30 Minutes or Less

Burke and Hare is the latest of the regular re-tellings of the real and amusing tale of two bumbling business men who turn to murder in order to meet the corpse needs of the royal Edinburgh Medical College.  30 Minutes or Less tells the tale of a slacker and his buddy strapped to a bomb and forced to rob a bank.  Both are moderately enjoyable. A few thoughts:

  • Both films frame the pursuit of crime as one of stupidity and desperation.  In 30 minutes or Less, the criminals who strap a bomb to our slacker protagonist do so in order to raise 100,000 so they can hire a hit man to murder the wealthy father of one of the gang.  In Burke and Hare, they turn to murder in order to raise capital for an all female version of Macbeth and to start a funeral parlor.
  • The police in both films are pretty dopey.  At least Burke and Hare gives them something to solve in the end.  In 30 Minutes or Less, the police become a useful plot device making things harder for the criminals and their hapless victims.
  • Both films play on the hapless criminals trope so common to films by the Coen Brothers.  While neither reaches the level of mania one might expect from such films, 30 Minutes or Less involves a chaotic pileup of amateurish nincompoopery on par with Raising Arizona or Fargo.  Burke and Hare feels much more like a conventional dark comedy.
  • In a strange turn of events made even more strange by the fact that I did not plan it this way, both films turn out to be based on real events.  30 Minutes or Less was very similar to the Collar Bomb killer case, but according to Wikipedia the screenwriters don’t claim to have been inspired by the events.  Burke and Hare were real individuals, and the story of the film is loosely based on their real killings of seventeen people to sell as medical subjects.
  • Ultimately, I think 30 Minutes or Less would have been a more interesting film if its writers hadn’t resorted to so much vulgarity early in the film.  I also thought Nick Swardson’s portrayal as the kind-hearted sidekick to Danny McBride was pretty darn good.

Both worth seeing, though probably not going too far out of your way to see.  Burke and Hare, despite its gruesome subject matter, is a bit more friendly to the refined viewer, as it has less vulgar language.  Isn’t it weird how vulgar language presents a bigger problem for the American viewing audience than do seventeen murders?

The True Mysteries of Inspector Blood Murdoch’s Newsroom

That sounds like a show I’d watch.  I was trying to figure out the best way to write about our summer television viewing, which included three separate shows, when I decided to do a “double review,” but in augmented form.  Here we go, a triple review!

True Blood Season 5 The Newsroom Inspector Murdoch season 3

True Blood: Season 5 develops its main thread around the impending war between humans and vampires as a rebellious faction of the vampire leadership takes control and begins preaching a fundamentalist view that humans just exist as food for vampires (as usual, there are about fifty side plots to follow too).  The Newsroom: Season 1 follows Will McAvoy, a popular news anchor who has a Broadcast News / Jerry Maguire moment as he admits what he really thinks, then leads his news show to be more hard hitting and honest in their broadcasting (The Newsroom allows roughly five side plots).  Inspector Murdoch Mysteries, Season 3 continues along as a charming turn of the century police procedural, with its very slow burning subplot of romance between Murdoch and Ogden.

A few thoughts:

  • Religion becomes a central issue in each show.  In True Blood, the fundamentalist “sanguinistas” believe themselves to have access to the one true faith, and they’re willing to bathe the world in blood to follow that plot.  We also see racist killers who want to get rid of all non-humans.  Inspector Murdoch always has a minor undercurrent of religious tension, as Murdoch is Catholic in the predominantly Anglican country (some people call him a “Papist”).  Coupled with a revelation about Julia’s past this season, religion shapes the plot in key ways.  The Newsroom spends the least amount of time on religion, though it does become an issue in the way they deal with Tea Party candidates.  Will wants to ask Michelle Bachmann what God’s voice sounds like, for example.
  • Science runs in the opposite direction.  The premise of the Murdoch mysteries is often the use of science to further law and order, with Murdoch’s interest in science leading to all sorts of plot devices.  This season, he encountered Tesla, again, and had a run in with some eugenicists.  The Newsroom sits in the middle, relying on science more than other sources of fact, but not making it an essential part of the story.  True Blood continues to blend science with the other supernatural aspects of the TB world, though if anything, the nature of the supernatural creatures gets more supernatural with each season.
  • Two series focus on a man at war with himself.  McAvoy struggles between his desire for ratings and popularity and his desire to be true to his spirit as a newsman.  Murdoch struggles with his desire for Julia and his buttoned up puritanical attitude.  I suppose True Blood‘s Terry or Alcide are men at war with themselves as well.  Alcide, especially, wants to be a joiner but doesn’t like to submit to the will of others.
  • We all love enjoyable side characters, don’t we?  They’re cute and rather harmless and they give us fun breaks from the more dramatic parts of the main plot.  Constable Crabtree stands out here as Murdoch’s dependable assistant, a man both clever and a little bit silly.  Andy Bellefleur plays a similar role in True Blood, often capturing our heart with his earnest attempts at getting along (at least after the clusterfsck of season 2).  The Newsroom gives this role to Neal Sampat, the newsroom staffer who maintains Will’s blog and believes Bigfoot is a real possibility.  (It occurs to me that there are potentials for Bigfoot stories in all three tales.  Show runners: call me.

I recommend all three shows.  The Newsroom is my favorite of the three, if I have to put them in order, but all are excellent.

My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend has been Taken!

I use the semi-random sorting method of “the last two movies I watched” to decide what I should write about in my double reviews.  I find that forcing myself to consider two movies as though they were intended to be viewed together makes for interesting insight about storytelling and movie making as a whole.  That said, this is a challenging one to write.

Taken My Girlfriend's Boyfriend

Taken is an intense action film in which a seventeen year old girl is abducted by human traffickers while on vacation in Paris.  By lucky chance, she happens to be on the phone with her father when it happens, and his past as a CIA operative makes him just the right guy to fly over to Paris and kick the shit out of the bad guys.  And that’s what he does.  Meanwhile, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is a cute romcom starring Alyssa Milano and Christopher Gorham, the latter of whom I’ll always think of as his creepy groom character from Harper’s Island.   Gorham plays a struggling author romancing a lovely but emotionally distant woman.  What he doesn’t know is that she started dating another man on the same day she started dating him, and neither relationship has ended. It’s a nice, even-handed story without the crazy hijinks of so many similar films.  A few thoughts:

  • Both Ethan (Gorham) and Brian (Neeson) have indefatigable hope about their quests.  Of course, one of them battles armies of awful men with guns while the other tackles minigolf and eBay.
  • The women in the films both have to deal with searing emotional trauma.  In Taken, nearly every female character has to deal with being shot, raped, kidnapped, or having their child kidnapped. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend has a less dramatic reason for the emotional trauma haunting Jess (Milano), but gives much more screen time to it.
  • Both films center their narrative on rising tension.  My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend slowly ratchets up the tension by showing Jesse’s conflict over the continuing courtship of both men.  As each relationship becomes more serious, she gets further and further into a seemingly intractable dilemma.  Taken uses the plight of Brian’s missing daughter and the ticking clock estimate he got from his friend (played by actor Leland Orser, the actor who played the most memorable victim in the movie Se7en) to make the plot more and more tense, especially as Neeson takes on more and more adversaries in ever worsening circumstances.
  • Both Brian and Ethan are middle class men who must square off against wealthy adversaries.  In Taken, each round of villains is more wealthy than the last, until finally he’s attacking fortified buildings and private yachts bigger than my house.  When Brian bests the last two uber-villains, he brings the righteous fury the audience expects.   Ethan’s adversary, Troy, also embodies elite polish.  He’s a man both suave and wealthy, and while I suspect Ethan is a better fit for Jesse, Troy fits all the abstract categories better.  But Troy is also a great guy, if less likeable than Ethan, and so the audience is less clear who to cheer for, and the end isn’t quite so clear cut.

That’s all I have to say about the movies without spoiling them (which I’ll do below).  But I highly recommend Taken if you enjoy action movies.  I haven’t felt that tense since Children of Men.  The other movie is fine, a nice rainy Sunday kind of film, but probably not worth going out of your way to see.

  • Spoilers: A few lingering questions about Taken.  First, I wonder what he said to the other girl’s parents.  The film established that she was dead, but I doubt the authorities could easily have found her, and if they did, she wouldn’t have had ID.  Second, I wonder how he got out of France– perhaps the official government line couldn’t afford to draw attention to his actions for fear of the publicity.   I also imagine that perhaps the captain of the yacht wouldn’t have left the bridge during the alert.  He would have locked the door and kept going — maybe even speeding up.  Then, Brian and Katie could have taken a dinghy back to shore, leaving the captain sailing out to sea as fast as he could.  Later, he’d try the walkie talkie, then eventually venture out of the bridge to find everyone else on the boat, including his boss, dead.  I wonder what he’d do at that point?
  • Spoilers: My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend ends up being the romcom Sixth Sense, as it becomes clear that Jesse’s internal debate is not over dating two men, but rather the emotional problem that led to her earlier divorce.  When the end of the film finally gets revealed, it works well until you realize that, like almost all romcoms, everyone would have been saved some heartache if only someone had just said what they were feeling!  Ugh.

Parents murdered? Revenge, cold: all that.

Dark Knight Rises Hanna

The Dark Knight Rises and Hanna

The third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises follows the final adventures of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, Batman (or is it Batman and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne?) as he battles mysterious criminal Bane for the life of Gotham City. Hanna follows a young woman of thirteen or fourteen (?) as she journeys across Europe, pursued by CIA agents who want to kill her.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films have plots dependent on dramatic events that happened before the film began.  Christopher Nolan gave us Batman Begins so that we would know the back story, while Joe Wright Hanna gave us flashbacks to her origin.
  • Hanna and Bruce both lose parents early and train in remote wildernesses to become ruthless killers.  We don’t yet know whether Hanna will take the cape when she grows up.  I wonder if anyone has ever used that phrase before: take the cape, the choice a young person makes to become a superhero.  Also perhaps the command a leader gives to troops assembled to attack a fort on a point. “Take the cape, me laddies!”
  • Both stories involve craggy mentors who look pretty good when they’re all cleaned up.  These mentors battle test their proteges, and then send them forth in the world to do battle.
  • The villains in both stories do silly voices — Bane’s ringmaster trill has been much maligned but I like it myself.  Cate Blanchett’s Southern accent is reasonable but seems a bit off.  She’s supposed to be American, so we have to settle for that rather than a refined British accent, which would have suited her character nicely.  I don’t know why it couldn’t have been MI-6 instead of the CIA doing the villainy.  I guess the British wouldn’t be so gauche as to shoot their way across Europe.
  • Both films also feature menacing men garbed in attire that’s less menacing.  Hanna involves a malicious blonde man who runs a drag club and happens to be a vicious killer/ torturer/ wearer of white boyish clothes.  The Dark Knight Rises features the return of the scarecrow, this time as the judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal under which everyone is sentenced to death.

I’m sure you already know whether you want to see Dark Knight Rises.  It’s a pretty great movie, a fitting end to the Nolan Batman trilogy, full of cool stuff, nifty villains, danger, and more.  But you might also want to see Hanna, which works well as a solid character piece combined with a tense action adventure.  It’s The Professional if Leon had been given more time to train the girl in the deadly arts.  Hanna has big fight scenes, but it’s a much more intimate movie, focused on the development of this sequestered girl into someone more complete, whole.