The World’s End. A manchild tries to cancel the Apocalypse.

worldsendDuring a summer when seemingly every week at the cinema brought us dour visions of mass destruction and planetary annihilation meant to thrill us, it’s oddly gratifying that two of this summer’s best, Evan Goldberg’s and Seth Rogen’s This is the End, which opened the summer, and now Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, which closes the summer, view the Apocalypse as an occurrence that, given the current state of humanity, might not be such a bad thing.

The World’s End, the final installment in the Cornetto Trilogy (which is the most arbitrary device from which to hang a trilogy, but I think that’s the point… aren’t most trilogies completely arbitrary?) is the story of five childhood friends (co-writer Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman… all brilliant) who are brought together by Pegg to recreate and actually complete a pub crawl they tried but failed to conquer back when they were in school a couple of decades prior. Like many of our species, Pegg reached his apex of happiness and self-importance during adolescence, and his life since has been spent wallowing in the pond sludge of nostalgia turned to regret.

He’s tried to hang on to what he can (he wears the same black Sisters of Mercy t-shirt/black coat ensemble he wore in school) and he drives the same car. And he’s positive this one night of nostalgic hedonism will somehow give his life the meaning it’s been lacking since that first failed venture into pickling his liver at twelve different pubs in one night, the last of which is called The World’s End.

His friends have moved on, and though they’re level of personal satisfaction can be debated, they don’t feel the need to re-live the night, especially the Frost character, for reasons which will not be documented here. But they are persuaded into partaking into this pub crawl, perhaps so that they will never have to hear from Pegg again.

But as they begin their jaunt, they notice something peculiar about their old haunts. The pubs have become homogenized. And most of the people are lacking in any real spirit or personality (one of the brilliant ideas of the movie is having the characters try to figure out what’s going on as they’re becoming more intoxicated.) And after they finally comprehend the totality of their predicament, they decide that the best way to escape would be to continue and complete the pub crawl, thus not calling undue attention to themselves (a plan which only makes sense to people who’ve been getting their drink on for a while.)

Wright and Pegg (along with Cornetto Trilogy co-star Frost) are just working on a different level than most other filmmakers. There’s a level of intelligence and craft on display that is astonishing. You sense that every detail has been thought out and every shot has been thoroughly planned, and yet there’s a still a feeling of airiness and freedom in their work that you don’t sense in the works of other obsessive over-planners like the Coen Brothers or David Fincher (now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE their work, but the way they seem to pick over every detail becomes stifling at times.) No, their work feels like Danny Boyle’s, at least in terms of visual invention and sheer “movie love.” But I don’t understand how Wright/Pegg/Frost achieve that same sense of freedom as Boyle, since Boyle works spontaneously; he just gets on the set and lets his right brain emerge like some kind of creative Hulk.

But what really sets them apart is their ability to make really personal movies about friendship and relationships without sacrificing the visceral and giddy thrills of the genres they so gloriously honor. One doesn’t overwhelm the other, and that’s because these guys aren’t just movie-geek technocrats, but they’re also humanists. They actually love people! They’re interested in the way people bond and screw up and, ultimately, forgive each other. That’s why the opening acts of the Cornetto movies have little to do with genre at all. They just enjoy watching their characters interact, which have been realized with the same love and care they bring to the genre tropes they simultaneously send up and praise in the second and third acts.

And when those genre elements kick in, do they deliver! Without giving too much away, there’s a fight scene in a bathroom that ignites all the mayhem, and by the time it’s over, you’ll want to applaud. It’s a brilliantly choreographed sequence, but it’s also perfectly awkward; none of these characters want to get into a fight, they just want to get wasted. They fight like people who haven’t been to “movie-fighting school” and automatically know how to engage an enemy combatant mano-a-mano.

One of themes of The World’s End is progress, both personal and technological; it’s very leery of the latter. As technology becomes more advanced, the people have become more withdrawn, trying to become part of a collective of other people they’ve never met and without any idea of their real intentions, and doing so at the risk of sacrificing connection with the people right in front of them. What the movie suggests is that maybe, in order to reach our full potential not as leaders in technology but as fully realized human beings, we may have to do away with it. Maybe the end of civilization as we know it would be a good thing, like a forest fire that wipes out everything in its path but allows for new growth that never would’ve happened without it. And maybe that new growth will facilitate that final step that will force us to become more thoughtful of our fellow man. It’s sort of like the ending of Terry Giliam’s Brazil, in which the “bleak” ending is actually the happy ending.

Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it. But it’s so awesome to have a comedy that allows for this sort of analysis and interpretation. And Wright should always work with Pegg. When Wright works without him, as he did on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, all of Wright’s visual pyrotechnics were on display, but it lacked any soul whatsoever. It was the worst case of style over substance in which the style itself became tedious. But when Wright and Pegg work together… wow! The World’s End is a triumph, and it’s a shame this marks the end of the Cornetto Trilogy.

Might I suggest a Cornetto Quadrilogy, perhaps?

You’re Next. The quirky indie horror movie.

yourenextAdam Wingard’s You’re Next begins with the obligatory “let’s show some boobs than kill some people who won’t really figure into the plot” scene and follows that up with the usual gathering of the victims before the slaughter begins, but the movie plays with these moments in a way that shows it has more on its mind than parading new and interesting ways to maul the human body.

For starters, the opening scene sets up a running gag that manages to work its way to the closing credits. It’s one of those earworms that you won’t be able to get out of your brain for at least a few hours after seeing the movie.

But it’s the dinner party where the movie really shows what it’s up to. You’re Next is about a family getting together to celebrate the 35th wedding anniversary of the parents. It’s a large mansion in the woods, and just about every room has some sort of floor-to-ceiling window, making it ideal for the sort of attack that’s about to take place.

Just before arrows begin flying through the windows and wire is strategically stretched outside of one of the doors, the family sits at dinner and we discover one of the guests (a boyfriend of the daughter) is a documentarian. At first, the other members of the family are impressed that a filmmaker is at their table. But then everyone begins to lose interest once they realize that his movies have only been shown at a couple of underground film festivals (one of them even asks if an “underground festival” actually takes place underground.)

And then the arguing begins. Family secrets begins to emerge and old wounds are reopened. But it’s the style of hostile discourse on display that’s interesting; this isn’t the type of dialogue we usually hear in movies like this. And the energy of the movie begins to change; we’re expecting a horror movie and all of a sudden, a comedy of manners breaks out. It’s almost as if we’ve stepped into a Noah Baumbach movie.

But then people start to die and blood begins to flow and You’re Next becomes the home invasion horror fest we’ve been promised. And while it references other horror movies and retains a knowing and intelligent sense of humor about itself, it never becomes as self-referential as the Scream movies, nor does it go full meta like The Cabin in the Woods.

Wingard not only delivers some unexpected laughs, but he also delivers a couple of really good scares. Because he is so obviously playing with certain horror-genre tropes, you never quite know where he’s going to take them, or how he’s going to present them. This is not like The Conjuring, where director James Wan, while very well executed, gave you the exact type of horror movie moments you’ve seen over and over again without any creative embellishment; if you’ve seen more than a few horror movies, you could almost count out the beats just before the boo! moments in The Conjuring, which greatly reduced the impact of the thrills.

And if you’re a gore hound (like yours truly), You’re Next doesn’t disappoint. There are a couple of horrific gags that are just so gruesomely wonderful. One of the characters gets it with an appliance in a way I’ve never seen before and just thinking about it still brings an evil smile to my face.

You’re Next is an unexpectedly entertaining horror movie. In terms of recent movies in a similar vein, it’s not quite as memorable as the hardcore, stripped-down home invasion classic from 2008, The Strangers. And it’s not as ambitious as The Cabin in the Woods. But it’s a good time at the movies, and funnier than many of the “comedies” released this summer. Go have a couple of sick laughs, and watch out for that front door.

Passion. De Palma’s old tricks gone stale.

passionI don’t know if you could call Passion a return to form for Brian De Palma. After the recent misfires like Redacted and Femme Fatale, I don’t think a return to form for De Palma is possible. At least not a return to quality.

It pains me to think this about De Palma. His work in the 1970s and 1980s were the raw materials of this (at the time) young movie nerd’s dreams; the blatant homages and over-the-top camera work were a joy to behold. But he wasn’t just referencing other filmmaker’s work; any hack can lift other people’s material in an attempt to give weight to his own work. No, what made De Palma special was the obvious, at times kinky, fun he was having while manipulating the audience.

True, anything you feel while watching a movie is the result of a filmmaker’s manipulation, but most try to hide the fact they’re manipulating you. Not De Palma. In the way the music would swell and become ridiculously operatic, or the way he’d draw out a suspenseful moment almost to the point of parody, then deliver a shock that leaves you wrung out yet weirdly exhilarated (the final sequence in Carrie (1976) will always hold a special place in my nightmares), De Palma always let the audience know they were being toyed with. And you could almost sense a devilish smile on De Palma’s face while doing it.

Passion is an attempt to recall that particular sense of kink that served De Palma so well in movies like Carrie, Sisters, and Dressed to Kill. It’s about two women, played by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, who work at a prestigious advertising firm. McAdams plays Rapace’s superior, and this very quickly seems like a bit of miscasting. McAdams is a fine actor, but Rapace has a darker and more dominant on-screen presence.

But with De Palma, this may be intentional. There’s a constant shifting of power in their relationship, with either artistic talent, or political deviousness, or raw sexuality as the trump card being used at any given moment. Throw in another character, an assistant to Rapace played by Karoline Herfurth, who’s a lesbian and clearly attracted to Rapace, and you have all the elements you’d think De Palma would need in order to concoct one of his deliriously lurid psycho-sexual melodramas.

De Palma even reunites with Pino Donaggio, the composer of all of those overly lush scores so important to De Palma’s work during his heyday. Add a carefully constructed sequence featuring a split screen, some expressionistic lighting and camera work (love those Dutch angles) and drawn out camera zooms, and again, this looks on the surface like what De Palma used to do best.

But the key phrase is “used to.” Passion lacks energy, and it lacks the seediness that made De Palma’s early work such dirty fun. De Palma is one of the most famous disciples of Hitchcock, but De Palma actually one-ups him when it comes to voyeurism… in one aspect anyway. Hitchcock seemed uncomfortable with his kinks, while De Palma seemed to revel in his. De Palma could never have directed a straight remake of Psycho, because the idea of a man feeling so guilty of his more prurient nature to the point of murder probably seems alien to him. And the fact that poor Norman would only wear his drag in private; yes, there are plenty of cross dressers in De Palma’s movies, but they never had a problem going out in public while doing so.

None of the playful perversity is evident in Passion. It feels like De Palma is just going through the motions, and while I was excited by the prospect of him reaching back to the 70s well, I was disappointed to see that it looks like he’s outgrown it. The only place there’s any passion in the movie is in the title.

Blue Jasmine. A woman past the verge of a nervous breakdown.

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett

Cate Blanchett’s performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a marvel, the kind of performance that would get extended standing ovations and curtain calls if it were done on the stage. But the performance seems to exist outside of the rest of the movie. It’s not that the performance is so superior to the others (there isn’t a bad performance in the movie.) But Allen can’t quite blend the varying tones.

Blanchett plays Jasmine, a former member of the economic one-percenters who’s fallen on hard times. Her husband, a Bernie Madoff-type played by Alec Baldwin, swindled millions from many and has paid the price. Jasmine is now forced to move from the swanky East Coast to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, who is being unfairly left out of many of the conversations about the movie; if Blanchett’s performance is award-worthy, so is Hawkins’) in a working-class section of San Francisco. The fact that she flew cross-country first class, while carrying around a few Louis Vuitton bags, seems to suggest she’s going to have a hard time living a more budget-conscious lifestyle.

Jasmine is one of the most complicated characters Allen has ever conceived. She’s a more soulful version of the typical well-educated, tightly wound, strong yet frail neurotic that have populated Allen’s movies for decades. But she doesn’t attempt to win anybody’s sympathy the way that Allen’s other characters have tried (especially the ones played by Allen himself.) Jasmine is all sharp edges, and she doesn’t have a sense of humor about herself or seemingly anyone else. She’s a person of exquisite taste, and she has difficulty abiding by those who are unaware of their lack of taste and grace.

Jasmine has forever been the good sister, elegant and refined, while Ginger has always been the other sister, average and dowdy. Ginger, who works in a grocery store, has had to struggle for everything while Jasmine has used her gifts to attract the attentions of men in high places, and there’s a wonderful movie to be made in exploring the tensions between two such diametrically opposed sisters.

But Allen focuses too much on the working class men in Ginger’s life (the ex played by Clay and her current boyfriend played by Bobby Cannavale) and how she interacts with them. And while Clay and Cannavale do well with what they’re given, they aren’t given all that much. Allen has never been able to write working class characters well, and while some of the contempt Allen has for these types is thankfully absent for the characters in Blue Jasmine, they’re still not much more than one-dimensional.

This is the biggest weakness in Blue Jasmine. You have these loud, working class types yelling at each other and here’s Jasmine, who seems to be existing in a completely different universe. I know it’s a fish out of water story, but it seems tonally awkward, and not intentionally so. At times, it feels as if Allen has taken Blanche DuBois and placed her in an episode of The Honeymooners.

There are a lot of ideas that Allen seems to have about Jasmine, the manner in which she has crafted her persona, her breakdown, the way she tries to live her own life yet feels like she has to be taken care of by a man, that aren’t given the opportunity to be fully fleshed out. The movie is like an adaptation of a deep and rich novel that left out so many details because perhaps they wouldn’t work cinematically. There’s a lot going on Blue Jasmine, and some of the characters, such as a potential paramour played by Louis CK and a less-than-appropriate dentist played by Michael Stuhlbarg, get the short shrift while others get too much time.

But a novel would’ve deprived us of Blanchett’s performance, which will be talked about for a long time, and rightfully so. And the movie ends with the perfect image, as Jasmine, unable to find her bearings, sits and talks to the only person who truly understands what she’s feeling.

2 Guns. Big budget cinema generica.

2_Guns__2_There’s nothing all that wrong with 2 Guns and I guess that’s enough to recommend it, but there’s nothing about it that makes you want to call your friends and say, “You’ve got to see this!”

2 Guns starts with a bank robbery committed by Denzel Washington and Mark Walhberg, both playing undercover agents, though neither knows the other is undercover. And then the movie gets plotty. WAY too plotty. It’s funny, because the movie is being sold entirely on the strength of its two lead actors, but it spends so much energy trying to keep the two apart, and succeeding. If it’s a “buddy movie”, that’s only because the studio says so, and not because it makes any sort of effort to be one.

It’s directed by Baltasar Kormakur, and while it’s technically competent, it doesn’t really have any sort of personality. Two names I’ve heard come up when talking about 2 Guns are Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah. This is the sort of movie either of these two would have made if not classic, at least memorable; they would have used the movie as one of their ongoing explorations into brotherhood and masculinity. What Kormakur gives us is the occasionally witty banter between Washington and Walhberg… at least during those moments they’re actually on-screen together. Thankfully, the two are entertaining personalities, so that is enough to keep you mildly entertained.

Hill and Peckinpah were also masters at presenting violence cinematically. 2 Guns has quite a few action set pieces, and while I was entertained while watching them, they don’t leave much of an impression (other than that red 1964 Impala with 43 million dollars in the trunk that blows up in slo-mo as Washington and Walhberg do a “cool walk” away from the vehicle, but that’s only because I was sad for the car going out the way it did.)

The movie gets a lot of mileage playing off the idea of government distrust. With the current uproar over the NSA and cell phones, there hasn’t been this much unanimous and vocal public outrage over government shenanigans in a long time. The filmmakers are canny in exploiting that distrust; even though the movie features a drug lord (Edward James Olmos) who recently decapitated a man and put his head in a bowling bag, he’s not even the baddest bad guy in the movie. At least he seems to abide by some sort of code. But the U.S. government? Whatever is beneficial for this moment is paramount, so pity the poor person who made a deal 5 minutes ago and actually hopes that deal still means anything.

Thank goodness for Bill Paxton! Without getting too much into particulars, he plays the man responsible for the money that was stolen, and he looks like he’s having a blast playing him. He doesn’t have a threatening presence, but he plays the character like a wannabe bully who happens to have very powerful people backing him up, so he and is evil id are taking full advantage of it. It’s like he’s been given a lifetime GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card and he’s more than happy to indulge in its privileges. Whenever Paxton appears on-screen, it’s the only time the movie really comes to life; he brings an unpredicability that’s more than welcome in such a formula concoction like this.

2 Guns is a perfect example of cinema generica. It’s not bad, but it feels so familiar and should probably be a whole lot better, considering the talent involved. It doesn’t strive for greatness; in fact, it’d be more than happy with OK-ness. I wouldn’t tell anybody not to see it; if you’re looking for something to pass the time for a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse (see my previous post.) But a studio like Universal, with all of its resources, should strive for something better than some made-for-basic-cable television movie you’d see on a Saturday night.

An open letter to the creators of “Grown Ups 2″, from one of your biggest fans….

Grown-Ups-2To Sony Pictures, Happy Madison Productions, et al.,

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste….

Actually, that’s not me, that’s my boss. I haven’t been to anywhere NEAR the places he’s been to (I was in St. Petersburg once, but it didn’t look like any czars have ever been there. But that one Kardashian’s boyfriend who keeps knocking her up threw out the first pitch at Tropicana Field when I was there, so that was pretty awesome!)

I’m pretty new to my current place of employment. I can’t really tell you where it is, but I can never leave. But I can say that, yes, it really is as HOT as everybody says it is. And being one of the bosses minions (we’re not as cute as those yellow ones in that movie, but many of us only have one eye), the only internet we get is 56k.

Anyway, I just wanted to tell all of you how FANTASTIC your movie “Grown Ups 2″ was! Yeah, it only got a 7% from Rottentomatoes.com, but what do stuck up critics know.

They care about stupid things like story and characterization and things making sense. When I saw it, it was after work, and all I wanted to do was get wasted. Well, mission accomplished. And I did it while watching your movie, and I felt like I didn’t miss a thing!

I love that it starts right off with the jokes. When that deer pissed all over Adam Sandler’s face, then in the very next shot, his face and hair and shirt were all dry, like Sandler couldn’t even be bothered to maintain continuity… well, being wet in a T-shirt sucks if you’re not a hot chick in a wet T-shirt contest, so I don’t blame him.

And kudos on all the hot women with big breasts in the movie! And for those breasts to be prominently featured at all times (especially since it’s advertised as a family movie and all.)  It’s like women only exist to be hot, or be butch, or be crazy stalkers. I never really had a real girlfriend for any real length of time, but that’s pretty much my experience with women, so thank you for portraying such an honest portrayal.

It looks like the guys are having fun, like they’re on vacation. They’re just chillin and looking at all the hot women, and not putting ANY effort into being funny. I’m mean, if I was David Spade, I don’t even have to try to be funny. I just know that everything I do or say is automatically HYSTERICAL! That’s why I’m on that TV show that’s been on for years that nobody really watches or even knows when it comes on.

I love when Kevin James’s character does his patented burp-snart (or burp-sneeze-fart)… laughed my ass off!! And it’s like he knew it was brilliant, because he did it like every five minutes! I’ve burp-snarted eight times since I started writing this. Make that nine!!! :-D

And Nick Swardson… what can I say! It’s like he doesn’t even TRY to be funny… BUT HE IS!! The way he just acts hyper while standing around in tighty whiteys or wearing women’s makeup or making out with a dog… THAT’S COMEDY!! I can’t get enough of him!

But I don’t know why some of the people look embarrassed to be in the movie. I mean, why does Colin Quinn look so miserable? Or Chris Rock? What about Steve Buscemi, like you have anything BETTER to do?! Even Kevin James, when he’s not burp-snarting, looks like he’d rather be doing something else.

I read (according to boxofficemojo.com) the movie cost 80 million dollars to make. It’s not like “Pacific Rim”, where I can see where all the money went. That must mean that all you guys in the movie made most of that money, for just standing around and pretending to be funny! I would LOVE to make that sort of coin while being pampered and doing nothing.

But I wanna defend the movie from critics who say the movie has no structure. The movie begins with the peeing deer that Sandler saves from attacking his family by distracting it with his daughter’s favorite doll. When the deer destroys the doll, the doll is repaired by the gay aerobics instructor who happens to sew. Then, when evil Taylor Lautner taunts Sandler at the end of the movie by waving it in front of his own crotch, the deer sees the doll and rams Lautner right in his crotch! (Oops, I probably should’ve said SPOILER ALERT.) I believe in the business that is known as a callback. See, structure… BOOM!

Even though critics hate the movie for whatever reason, the movie has made 116 million dollars. So there, the people have spoken. That’s what we want. So why should we complain when we’re OBVIOUSLY getting what we want?

All of the people involved have worked hard to get where they are in their careers and never sold their souls to my boss to get there. I checked the files. Like I said, I LOVED every lazy second of it.

So keep doing what you’re doing! And I can’t wait for “Grown Ups 3″! But you know what you should do? Make it in 3D. The deer-pissing will be even MORE awesome!

Sincerely yours,

A dutiful servant of S.

The Wolverine. Ain’t no cure for the summertime (superhero) blues.

wolverinefelixCalling The Wolverine the best superhero movie of the summer is to damn it with the faintest of praise. I may be saying this because it’s the only superhero movie this summer for which I had absolutely no expectations. Iron Man 3 was better than Iron Man 2, but it still wasn’t good. And Man of Steel… don’t get me started on that one.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I really didn’t want to see The Wolverine. 2009’s X Men Origins: Wolverine was so bad, it almost turned me off of X Men altogether. I never really found the X Men movies to be all that event-worthy to begin with; they’re at best in the second tier of the current Marvel movie crop. The only one of the movies I really enjoyed was X Men: First Class (the first two from Bryan Singer were entertaining but forgettable; the third one from Brett Ratner… again, the less said, the better).

When I first heard they were making a second stand-alone Wolverine movie, I thought, WHY? But when Darren Aronofsky signed on to direct it, it suddenly moved up from why bother to must see. Marvel has done a fine job of pairing directors you wouldn’t necessarily think of for this kind of material (Sam Raimi with Spider-Man (which I actually thought was a stroke of genius at the time, with his Darkman being the best comic book movie not actually based on a comic book I’ve ever seen!) Ang Lee with Hulk, Kenneth Branagh with Thor, Jon Favreau with Iron Man.) And yes, some have been more successful that others. But with pairing Aronofsky with Wolverine, I was thinking he would really take the superhero movie to some uncomfortable places that mainstream audiences wouldn’t be ready for, and the contrarian in me couldn’t wait!

And then Aronofsky bowed out of the project…. And James Mangold, whose work I respect but really can’t get all that enthused about (though I think Identity is a twisted little gem) took over, and my heart sank. I was sure we’d get another dull retread of a character who’s actually a lot less interesting than he’s made out to be.

Well, I was wrong… sort of. It’s passably entertaining. It strips down the superhero aspect of the character and sort of becomes an old-fashioned film noir about a scarred loner; still in love with woman he murdered and approached by a figure from his past with intentions that may not be so pure. Hugh Jackman does a fine job of glowering and looking eternally pissed-off (even without the cigar and even with that still-goofy haircut… it may work in an illustration, but in real life, he looks like one of the Little Rascals roided up and gone bad.) If the Wolverine comic was around in the 1950s, Robert Mitchum would have made a wonderful Logan.

The problem is the movie never really commits itself to one idea, and it doesn’t do a good job of mashing those ideas up and creating something interesting. It’s sort of a film noir, but it doesn’t want to delve too deeply into character. It then becomes Wolverine versus the Yakuza, which could have been an amazingly kick-ass movie, but it wants to keeps its family friendly PG-13 rating and therefore not allowed to get into the more brutal aspects of Yakuza culture (why it’s still PG-13 is beyond me, considering the number of people Wolverine disembowles with those claws of his.) And it all ends up with a big confrontation in a secret warehouse between Wolverine and really big CGI robot.

But still, a couple of the action scenes were well staged (a sequence atop a speeding bullet train is exemplary and a moment in the third act where Wolverine almost resembles a comic book Saint Sebastian is pretty cool) and Mangold manages to move the story along at a decent-enough pace to keep things from getting dull.

But after a summer movie season of general mediocrity, especially the comic book movies, is a movie being “not as bad as I thought it’d be” acceptable? Perhaps we were spoiled by the two superhero movies of note that 2012 gave us, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Both gave us the spectacle we want from a summer movie and the depth of character that leaves the longest impression. And both movies knew what they were; The Avengers being the bright, pop-art Mozart that is Marvel and The Dark Knight Rises being a fitting conclusion to the Wagnerian Sturm und Drang that Nolan had successfully fused onto the Batman legacy (and failed to fit onto Superman.)

The Wolverine rises above expectations by being just okay. But if that’s all we’re looking for in a mega-budget summer movie, then what a sad and sorry state we live.

Fruitvale Station. A tragic day in the life.

fruitvale-station02**If you’re not familiar with the events surrounding Oscar Grant and wish to watch FRUITVALE STATION completely unspoiled, then do not read this until after you’ve seen the movie. SPOILERS are aplenty. But after you’ve seen it, please come back and take a few minutes to read my post. Thank you!**

If there’s a problem in trying to review Fruitvale Station, the debut from writer-director Ryan Coogler, it’s the fact that it’s so hard to divorce yourself from the tragic event that occurred on New Year’s Day 2009 in order to look critically at the movie itself. What happened to Oscar Grant is reprehensible, and the feelings this tragedy creates in the viewer are so visceral that perhaps there may be a tendency to overlook the movie’s flaws and just proclaim it a masterpiece because of the way it hits you in the gut.

Fruitvale Station opens with the real cellphone footage of Bay Area Regional Transit police officers restraining Oscar Grant and one of the officers pulling out his handgun and shooting Grant in the back at close range. So we in the audience already know what’s about to go down in the third act. But Fruitvale Station isn’t a polemic; the movie just presents Oscar’s day in the life, his last day.

It’s December 31, 2008, and Oscar Grant, beautifully inhabited by Michael B. Jordan, is trying to get his life on the right track. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not a saint either. He can’t hold onto a job, but that’s just because he goofs off and doesn’t always show up to work on time. He loves his daughter and the mother of his child. Since he can’t maintain steady employment, he sells drugs (though the movie suggests he may stop.) He loves his mother (a heartbreaking Octavia Spencer), but their relationship shows the strains his less-than-responsible behavior have created (he did time in jail, and during one of her visits, an event takes place that will have ramifications later.)

Oscar doesn’t lack self-awareness; he opening acknowledges the fact that he’s a “f— up.” Throughout the movie, Oscar quotes something he heard from Oprah, saying that in order to create a habit, you have to do something continually for thirty days. He’s just trying to do the right thing, for himself and his family, and he knows he’s his own worst enemy. The movie is about day one, but had he lived, you have the feeling it would’ve been a LONG thirty days.

Writer-director Coogler does a fantastic job in creating these little slice-of-life moments that don’t need to be loaded with meaning in order to be effective. But there are moments when Coogler stages scenes that do feel weighed down with significance that he can’t weave into the fabric of the movie without interrupting the flow and calling undue attention.

The biggest offender involves a dog. While filling up his car with gas, he witnesses a dog getting hit by a car as the driver just speeds away. He carries the dog off the street and consoles the dying animal before it passes away. The scene reeks of symbolism that’s completely unnecessary; we know what’s going to happen later via the cellphone footage presented at the top of the movie, so we don’t need these dramatic signposts.

While Coogler isn’t in complete control of the tone, he knows how to get a performance from his actors; nobody here delivers a moment that doesn’t feel completely authentic. And Michael B. Jordan does something kind of miraculous; he doesn’t just present a character in so much as he presents a life, something that isn’t just here in order to move the story along but something that truly feels as if it exists outside of the frame of this movie. It’s hard to describe what he does, but it’s so subtle. There’s just so much love and pride and emotion he’s able to project without making a big deal about it.

Even though we know what will happen to Grant once he gets off the train and onto the platform at the Fruitvale station, it still knocks the wind right out of you. Yes, a disturbance happens on a train filled with people just trying to have the fun you’re suppose to have in a big city on New Year’s, and things could have escalated. But nobody got hurt, and the fact that a young man was killed as a result of authorities trying to create order is revolting.

And that’s what Fruitvale Station does so well. In spite of a script that has occasional problems with tone, the movie is a triumph of sympathetic imagination. A real sense of heartbreak is created in witnessing Oscar Grant’s life getting snuffed out. As disadvantaged or as screwed up as some people’s lives may be, everybody should have the opportunity to make life better for themselves. Hell, even our Founding Fathers said so. Unfortunately, in that pursuit of happiness, the system puts more obstacles in the way for some than for others.

The Conjuring. Incredible acting, but not incredibly scary.

the_conjuring_38534Funny thing about The Conjuring is, it’s a very good movie in spite of the fact that it doesn’t really work in the way it’s being advertised.

The Conjuring is being advertised as this year’s “scariest movie ever made!” The MPAA Ratings Board gave it a boost by giving it an R rating, even though there isn’t an extreme amount of violence or gore, no nudity, and hardly any foul language. The MPAA said there couldn’t be any cuts made to the movie that would give it the less prohibitive PG-13; the tone of the entire movie was just so scary and unsettling they felt it was unsuitable for anyone under the age of 17 without parental consent. Wow.

The problem is, the movie isn’t all that scary. Yes, director James Wan (Saw, Insidious) does a good job of establishing atmosphere and in setting up and paying off the jump-from-your-seat moments (The Conjuring does what every Paranormal Activity movie has failed to do, which is actually delivering what it sets up, as opposed to the Paranormal Activity movies that just tease and tease and TEASE for eighty-five minutes and then go all gonzo in the final five.)

Wan is clever in the way sets us up: when the Perron family (Lili Taylor as Carolyn, the mom; Ron Livingston as Roger, the dad; Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver as the children) first move into the house, we don’t see the house from the family’s point-of-view, but from inside of the house, as if something is looking back at them. The only one who immediately wants nothing to do with the house is the family dog.

Maybe it’s just a symptom of me being old and having seen too many of these types of movies, but nothing that happens is much of a surprise. The Conjuring feels like an obvious patchwork of other horror movies; it starts with the “creepy doll”, then turns into a haunted house movie (Wan includes a moment where the camera holds on a shot of a TV full of static… nice touch) and ends up being a Poltergeist/Exorcist hybrid during the climax.

Wan does a marvelous job in presenting all of this (and he’s ably assisted with a score by Joseph Bishara that’s all strings and brass playing Penderecki-inspired discordant melodies), but it feels like hearing a good cover band playing songs you’ve heard over and over again; yeah, it’s kind of fun at first, but after a while it feels like everyone is just going through the motions.

And yet, despite of all of that, The Conjuring is worth seeing because of the quality of the performances, a rarity in this genre. EVERYBODY in the movie does such a wonderful job of grounding their work with a level of realism and empathy. And the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes actually gives us characters who react with good sense under these extreme conditions; Patrick Wilson, as Ed Warren, one half of the husband and wife team of paranormal investigators, even comes right out and asks the Perrones why they haven’t just moved out, and their answer makes sense.

While Wilson and Livingston are spot on as the husbands, it’s the leading ladies who really shine. Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine Warren, who’s clairvoyant, which is a definite advantage when investigating the paranormal, but it also takes a grueling emotional and physical toll on her. The Warren’s are coming off of an exorcism that was particularly painful for Lorraine, and Ed is fearful about letting her take on this case concerning the Perrones, which seems particularly dangerous. But Lorraine knows she’s the more gifted investigator, and won’t let Ed go it alone. Wilson and Farmiga are fantastic playing this couple not as cooks, but as open-minded people with enough healthy skepticism to not automatically assume that every case they take on is some sort of haunting.

Let me fawn over Lili Taylor for a moment. Why this woman doesn’t work more often is beyond me! Going all the way back to 1988’s Mystic Pizza, Taylor has never given a performance that wasn’t completely heartfelt and fully formed; why she wasn’t Oscar-nominated for Dogfight or Household Saints is outside my comprehension. The Conjuring gives Taylor her largest role in years, and she runs with it. As the mother of five children who may be the focus of an unseen demonic force, Taylor is put through, and puts us through, quite the ringer. She is gracious and protective and frightened and frightening and overwhelmed and overwhelming, and never over-the-top, which would be an easy trap to fall into with this type of character. If there is any justice, we’ll be seeing a whole lot more from Taylor.

The Conjuring is really about the legacy of mothers; mothers both present and long gone who do everything they can to protect their children, and those, influenced by forces many of us will never understand, who are compelled to do harm to them. Perhaps this is why, along with the fine performances, the movie works as well as it does despite the feeling of over-familiarity with its genre tropes. The climax of the movie, despite all of the enveloping chaos, is surprisingly moving.

The Conjuring is drawing a lot of comparisons with Poltergeist, and though it does lay on the special effects in the third act like that movie, it actually has more in common with The Sixth Sense. Granted, The Sixth Sense doesn’t try to pound you with shocks like The Conjuring and relies more on atmosphere in creating tension, but what makes both movies work are the quiet intensity of the performances. And maybe that’s what will make The Conjuring a horror movie that’ll be talked about for a while; it’s not what scares us that makes something really memorable, but what moves us.

 

Pacific Rim. Del Toro’s loving monster mash.

PACIFIC RIMYou gotta marvel at how some filmmakers slip through the gates and are allowed the resources to make something that’s simultaneously so epic and so personal.

Three years ago, Christopher Nolan got Warner Brothers to sign a nine figure check in order to make his incredible, head-trippy Inception. But Nolan had just come off The Dark Knight, which for a few months in 2008 just latched itself onto the cultural zeitgeist (you couldn’t go anywhere without the movie coming up in conversation) and made a mint for the studio in the process, so WB probably felt obliged to let Nolan do whatever he wanted. Thankfully, he delivered a masterpiece.

But occasionally, big personal projects like this go wrong… very wrong. After 300 and Watchman, Warner Brothers (again) let Zach Snyder make his dream movie, Sucker Punch. Sometimes, a filmmaker lets you too far into their head. I think Snyder was trying to make a kick-ass, female action movie that would be a tribute to strong women, but what he made just seemed icky and exploitative; he had no idea how creepy his vision was, and he ended up creating one of the more uncomfortable movie-going experiences of recent years.

Why Warner Brothers (of course) decided to write Guillermo Del Toro one of those enormous checks to make his personal mega movie, I have no idea (were the Hellboy movies THAT successful?) But I’m sure glad they did. Pacific Rim is a movie that reeks movie-geek love. You get the idea that once Del Toro got the greenlight from WB to make his monster movie, he figured he might never have access to this type of money ever again, so he put EVERYTHING he could into it.

Pacific Rim is so filled with joy. And considering how loud the movie is and the amount of rampant destruction the movie puts on display, there’s a certain amount of grace as well. Last month’s Nolan/Snyder collaboration, Man of Steel, had just as much chaos, but that movie was bleak and overwhelming; there was nothing fun about it. Del Toro takes you on a thrill ride that leaves you exhilarated.

Pacific Rim doesn’t feel excessive or overstuffed. Del Toro was smart to give you just enough Kaiju (fancy word for “monster”)/Jaeger (fancy word for “robot”) action right off right off the top so that the movie can settle in and take its time to develop character and conflicts before we see another big action set piece. It’s not like the Transformers movies, which feel the need to constantly push MORE ACTION AND NOISE AND ACTION into your bloodstream, lest you fall into some kind of stimulation withdrawl.

Don’t get me wrong, the characters in Pacific Rim aren’t going to blow you away with their complexity and nuance. And Del Toro, who co-wrote the screenplay with Travis Beacham, still has a tin ear for dialogue.

Del Toro encourages his actors to play big, which is fine when you have guys like Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, the man in charge of the Jaeger program (Elba gives a Henry-the-Fifth-at-Agincourt speech that would almost rival Bill Pullman’s rallying cry from Independence Day if it were only a little longer and had more time to build. But points must be given for not having Elba yell “INTO THE BREACH!!”) and Ron Perlman as a pimped-out black market dealer of Kaiju remnants (if EVER a supporting character called for his own movie, it’s this one! And do yourself a favor… don’t leave once the end credits start to roll.)

Unfortunately, when some actors play big, it sometimes comes off as shrill. Charlie Day (who I usually love) and Burn Gorman play a couple of dueling scientists who have their moments, but a little bit of these two goes a LONG way; Del Toro should’ve had them dial down their energy a little bit.

But ultimately, Del Toro knows what Pacific Rim is supposed to deliver, and man, does it deliver! This movie isn’t just big, it’s EPIC! I usually advise against paying a premium to see a movie in IMAX (unless parts of the movie were actually shot in IMAX, as Nolan has been known to do.) But with this movie, if you can, see it in IMAX!

Del Toro knows how to layer the surprises; I won’t give anything away, but a few times during the movie, I was convulsing with laughter, overcome with ecstatic shock and awe. And the score by Ramin Djawadi does a fantastic job, particularly when the biggest of the bad-ass Kaiju rise from the ocean breach, of highlighting those really bassy horns that used to herald the arrival of that most famous of Kaiju back in the 1950s.

To call Pacific Rim a “guy’s movie” is overestimating its maturity; it’s a “boy’s movie,” and I mean that in the most loving way possible. Here’s a movie, particularly after a dark and disappointing batch of summer movies, that gives sustenance to the soul of the 8-year-old nerd inside of you; that child who first discovered how glorious the cinema could be when you first saw (depending how old you are) Jaws or Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park.

Orson Welles, when making Citizen Kane, said making a movie was like playing with “the biggest electric-train set any boy ever had.” I don’t know if Del Toro played with trains as a child, but I’m almost positive he made little cities populated with lots of action figures and had giant toy lizards stomp on them. Del Toro is now a 48-year-old boy who has all the major cities that line the Pacific Ocean to play with; you can almost hear him laughing to himself and saying, “Can you believe they’re actually letting me do this?!”