Sunday, April 13, 2014
Monkey Business (1952)
There is a trope in comedies whereby a reserved character gets drunk, high, or otherwise intoxicated, and subsequently acts outlandish, hopefully with hilarious consequences. Think Kristin Wiig’s airplane drunkenness in Bridesmaids (2011), or Alan Tudyk dropping acid in Death at a Funeral (2007). As common as this technique is, it’s usually only good for shock embarrassment and a few chuckles. A character isn’t funny if that character must behave out-of-character to be funny. Contrast to Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover (2009); he’s unpredictable and zany with or without substance augmentation.
Looks like Hollywood has been leaning on this crutch at least since 1952. Cary Grant is a scientist, whose lab chimpanzee concocts a youth serum, which Grant inadvertently drinks. Soon he’s bouncing off the walls like a teenager, except not exactly like a teenager, but rather more like an adult pretending to be an exaggerated version of a teenager for the amusement of an adult audience. Ginger Rogers gets a shot of the stuff as well and begins acting like an eight-year-old. For the most part, the film is dull.
To express his youthfulness, Grant gets the in-vogue haircut of the day, the crew-cut. To the contemporary audience, this probably made him look/seem younger. I associate the crew-cut not with youth, but with specific bygone eras (1980s, 1950s), so his crew-cut actually aged him in my estimation. It will be interesting to see how youth-centric icons of the current era come to be associated with their generation, rather than the age of their inception. Will backwards ball caps and skate boards someday come to symbolize a geriatric generation still clinging to those totems of their youth?
The General (1926)
Buster Keaton, a railroad engineer, tries repeatedly to volunteer for the Confederate Army but is rejected because of his small stature. The woman he fancies (Marion Mack) is proud when her father and brother enlist; not knowing that Keaton is unable to join, she is ashamed that he won’t fight beside her family. When Union spies take Mack hostage and head back into Union territory on Keaton’s train (”The General”), it’s up to Keaton to rescue his love, retrieve his train, and thwart a Union invasion, all by himself.
This is my first of now five silent Keaton movies, too late for me to appreciate Keaton making an appearance as himself in Sunset Boulevard. The man is a comic genius, and plays a character unlike any I’ve seen. A courageous, industrious buffoon, his acting style is a mixture of Jackie Chan’s physical comedy, Leslie Nielsen’s accidental catastrophes, Jay Baruchel’s endearing dweebism, Ben Stiller’s magnetism for insults, and Chris Pratt’s optimism and dauntlessness.
Toki o kakeru shôjo (Time Traveler, 2010)
Adapted from the same Manga that gave us The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, this version’s Akari travels back to just before her conception. She befriends her mother, and meets the various men who could be her father. Attempting to blend in, she helps her parents with their experimental student sci-fi film, while also trying to get back to her own time, and to avert an impending disaster that is sure to kill one of the important people from her past. This film’s sci-fi conceit takes backstage to the quiet drama of a girl exploring the past in a personal way. Not as exciting as the more superpowered animated version, but interesting.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
The Iron Man franchise has rewarded us with a consistent if not predictable trio of arcs. In the first film, Tony Stark (Rober Downey, Jr.) faces off against business partner and engineer Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) wearing industrial-strength Iron Man armor. In the sequel, Stark and pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle), also wearing Iron Man armor, team up against an army of automated Iron Men controlled by two other evil engineers, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). In this third installment, his foe is not an army of Iron Men, but a a rebellion planned by the enigmatic Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and enforced by an army of fire-breathing magma men, the brainchildren of tech-competitor Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). The common thread seems to be that only Tony Stark can wield technology for good.
Whereas the second movie touched on Stark’s ego and alcoholism (more prevalent in the comics), this latest responds to the events in The Avengers, with Stark frightened of his own mortality, and the prospect of losing love-of-his-life Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to collateral damage. His journey will take him to a boy’s garage in the snowy mountains of Tennessee where he channels MacGyver to defend himself despite his armor being on the fritz.
With so many adversaries, Stark must rely on his allies more than ever. Rhodey returns, now as War Machine rather than Iron Patriot. Pott’s role continues to grow; from assistant to CEO in the second movie, and damsel in distress to super hero in the third.
Much of the movie’s technology doesn’t withstand casual questions, like how the armor can fly without Stark’s personal arc reactor, or for that matter how each piece of armor has enough fuel to fly itself across the country in dismembered parts.
As the eighth installment in the Avengers franchise (yes, I count both Hulk movies), the Avengers are now up there with Harry Potter, Star Trek, and James Bond as the franchises from which I’ve seen the most movies (though there is no shortage of long-running franchises).
The exceptional Steven Soderbergh continues to explore new genres, this time trying delivering a Jason Bourne-esque action spy thriller. Mallory Kane (mixed-martial artist Gina Carano) is a mercenary cut loose and framed by CIA headhunter Ewan McGregor. Kane must face off against former allies Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender in some of the most brutal close-quarters fights I’ve seen.
This is an excellent genre film. I’m very disappointed that Carano hasn’t been cast as Wonder Woman in the upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie; she has the perfect combination of athleticism and charisma, and by combat measure, is the toughest woman on the planet.
Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925)
A battleship’s working-class crew mounts a mutiny against their officers who treat them poorly and serve rotting food. The nearby town rejoices at the uprising and sends relief to the heroic shipmen. The historical context is unfamiliar to me, the acting does not withstand the test of time, and overall it's a bit boring. I've heard a lot about this film being groundbreaking for its time, which is fine, but since I'm not a film historian, I don't really care if it doesn't entertain me now.
Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
Though the film industry was only a decade old, already it was producing a movie starring a film projectionist (Buster Keaton) who imagines he’s one of the characters in the movie. In real life, he’s been framed for stealing jewelry from his love interest. Using sleuthing skills he picks up from the movies, he tries to clear his name and win his gal. More than half the movie depicts a fantasized version of the narrative, making it difficult to tell which is real and which not.
Some of the stunts and special effects blew me away, like when Keaton jumps through a window against which he’s propped a hoop-shaped change of costume. When he lands on the other side of the window, he’s now dressed as an old woman. At one point, using either magic or an early form of split screen, a man holds up a suitcase, and Keaton jumps into the suitcase (though the man’s body, actually) and to the other side of a fence. Keaton leaps from a tall building onto a railroad crossing arm, riding it down to the back of a moving car. Awesome stuff that still looks good nearly a century later.
Our Hospitality (1923)
Another comedy of errors in which Keaton, whose family was run out of town a generation ago by a violent feud, returns to his homeland to claim his inheritance (a crumbling old house). His return re-ignites the feud, but also the affections of the rival family’s daughter. Soon he’s wooing her, both because of genuine affection, but also because if he leaves her house, her father and brothers can stop playing host and start shooting.
The Lorax (2012)
Digital animation is the perfect medium to bring Dr. Seuss's fantasy worlds to life. Like Horton Hears a Who (2008), The Lorax features a beautiful landscape populated by interesting-looking plants, creatures, and people. Danny DeVito's curmudgeonly Lorax is a bit of a bore, but the other characters are fun.
Alter Egos (2012)
Like The Specials, Alter Egos demonstrates that a superhero movie doesn’t need a large budget or known characters to be good. Our central character, Fridge (freezing powers), is lured to an alpine motel by his colleague, C-Thru (x-ray vision, the least useful combat ability ever), to help interrogate a supervillain held captive in one of the motel rooms. Brandon (Fridge’s alter ego) is angry with his girlfriend because she’s having an affair. With Fridge. C-Thru points out that it’s not really cheating if she’s sleeping with the same man, but in two different guises, but Brandon asserts that because she doesn’t know he’s Fridge, it’s an act of infidelity. Think Mary Jane Watson juggling her affections between Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
Alter Egos is part comedy, part drama, exploring fun superhero terrain by leaning on good writing rather than fancy effects.
Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (2011)
Terrible. None of the charm or wit of the first movie, and with worse animation. Somehow they earned a theatrical release for a direct-to-video-quality movie, and after shaving years off the age of the target audience. Probably the most disappointing sequel I’ve ever seen.
What a bizarre found-footage movie. The main characters are a team of filmmakers with a mythbusting-like television show. Investigating a cult of moon worshippers (who try to silence them), the filmmakers begin to uncover unexplainable phenomena and doomsday prophesies. Surprisingly engaging for such a low budget film. I was especially impressed by the acting of the leads, who were authentic and convincing as confident TV personalities descending into paranoia.
Groundhog Day (1993) blew my mind. We debated it constantly at the swimming pool and over camp fires, strategizing about how best to prepare for an impending Groundhog Day (flexible locations, access to money), and theorizing what could be accomplished within the constraints of the daily reset. One of Bill Murray’s greatest films, its perfect blend of comedy, science fiction, drama, and romance keeps it relevant and watchable today.
With such a distinctive conceit, it’s not surprising that Groundhog Day has spawned few imitators. The only titles I can think of include 12:01 (1993, probably developed independently), Day Break (2006, television mini-series), Repeaters (2010), Source Code (2011), 12 Dates of Christmas (2011), and the upcoming Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
In Repeaters, three teens in rehab are given repeated chances to atone for past mistakes. Whereas Groundhog Day, focusing on Murray's Phil, followed the likely trajectory of confusion to celebration to despair to realization, Repeaters’ three characters gives the movie more space to explore different reactions to the phenomenon, and to play them off each other. Even if one character behaves the same way twice, the outcome would only be the same if the other two did so as well, which of course they won’t.
Whereas some of the other films in this tiny sub-genre supply scientific reasons for the repetitions, Repeaters, with its dark tone and corrupted characters, allows us to infer that these three are in a sort of limbo of their own making (it does provide an event that would explain why these three in particular are connected). In Groundhog Day, Phil thinks he and his life are great, if only he could get out of this town. In Repeaters, none of the three are happy to begin with, and so travel a darker path toward escaping their confines. Well worth watching.
I’m not a fan of dystopian film. Aside from being inherently depressing, they seldom provide a plausible explanation for how society progressed from the viewer’s present to the twisted world of the film’s characters. Visioneers is able to skirt this criticism by being more absurdist. Zach Galifianakis is a bureaucratic cog, whose co-workers are literally exploding around him from the stress and/or tedium of their lives. He is unhappy in his marriage to Judy Greer, whose nuanced performance elevates her above mere foil to Galifianakis. Galifianakis's only healthy relationship is via phone with a woman in a different department whose voice is always tender toward him.
Almost an homage to the works of Terry Gilliam, the film is strangely good at some parts, but more often is just strange, keeping me at arms distance with it inexplicable society and unpredictable characters.
Prête-moi ta main (I Do, 2006)
A man hires his friend’s daughter to be his fiance, and dump him, so that his matriarchal family will stop badgering him to get married. Predictable in all regards, except that he has an unusual occupation: he manufactures perfume, and his most valuable organ is his nose.
Red Eye (2005)
Cillian Murphy sits beside and holds hostage Rachel McAdams on a plane, using her as a bargaining chip in a scheme that unfolds while the plane is in flight. It's up to McAdams to understand the plot, and foil it, before the plane lands, and without her captor knowing. Well acted and tense from beginning to end. McAdams and Murphy at their best.
La doppia ora (The Double Hour, 2009)
Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) is a hotel maid, emotionally scarred by having found one of her guests dead. Detached from the world, she turns to a speed-dating service to meet people, and there begins a romance with Guido (Filippo Timi), an ex-cop who now manages the security of a private estate. A romantic weekend at the estate is interrupted by a robbery, during which Sonia is shot in the head. She survives, but with partial amnesia. As she tries to remember pieces of her life, Guido tries to identify the robbers, and the two are challenged to maintain their romance.
An intriguing film. Rappoport and Timi anchor their characters with emotional realism, making each scene a serious study.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
You can't go wrong with a trailer for this movie, but my favorite is a beautiful, lavish, and emotionally intense mash-up of songs and imagery, wrapped up with Filter's devastating cover of "Happy Together". One of the best trailers I've seen in a while. The movie, unfortunately, is a bit dull in contrast.
Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway, the film's naive narrator. During a summer internship in 1920s New York City, Nick befriends and is flattered by his Long Island neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who absorbs Nick into Gatsby's high class world, attending parties, swimming, boating, riding in sports cars, and stepping into the speakeasy underworld. Through Nick's whimsical cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rough-around-the-edges husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), Nick meets famous golfer Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki, a stunner in every scene), with whom he shares a light romance. Daisy and Tom live across the bay from Nick and Gatsby; no coincidence, it turns out, as Gatsby intends to employ Nick to reconnect with Daisy, Gatsby's ex-lover.
Perhaps what makes Gatsby work so successfully as a trailer is what hinders it as a film. The dramatic shots, frenetic partying, and modern music make the trailer exciting, but they distance me from the movie, reminding me of its artifice. (As does Nick's intrusive narration. I dislike narration in general, but it can work much more successfully in print, as in Fitzgerald's book, because the written word lends itself to the idea of someone telling a story to the reader. In a movie, as in this one, narration's superimposed, phantom voice interrupts the now-ness of the viewer's experience.) Gatsby and Daisy are wonderfully flawed together, with The Great Gatsby delivering the emotional sequel to director Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996): what if the star-crossed lovers had not died, but had merely been kept apart for a decade? What happens when juvenile affection is rekindled in the adult world? It's tragic regardless, and like with Luhrmann's earlier film, this one makes a better music video.
Real Steel (2011)
I've never watched actual boxing, but boxing movies are so much fun. There are the Rocky movies (1976-2006), of course, but also Snatch (2000), Girlfight (2000), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and The Fighter (2010) (okay, maybe 'fun' isn't the right word). But replace the athletes with robots, and what was a sport of strength, endurance, and reflexes becomes an outtake reel from The Transformers (2007).
Hugh Jackman is a down-on-his-luck robot boxer. He owes money, he needs a break, he wants to impress his son, there's an underdog sparring robot noone takes seriously, etc. The script writes itself. It is predictable in all regards, not interesting as sci-fi, less interesting than humans boxing, and, most offensively, still tugged at my heartstrings at all the intended moments.
Posted by Will M. Baker at 11:43 AM