Breeze from the Past

Men in Black 3 (2012)     3.5/5

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Columbia Pictures)

When a franchise seemingly has nowhere to go, where do you take it? Men in Black 3, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (who in contrast with most sequel-spawning filmmakers, has stuck around to direct all three movies), makes the wise decision to bring us to 1969. Luckily, with the power of ingenious casting, and a knowingly well-structured script by Tropic Thunder co-writer Etan Cohen (not to be confused with like-sounding filmmaker, Ethan Coen), Men in Black 3 manages to be summer fun with satisfyingly emotional undertones, even though it may glaze over the eccentric detail that made the first film an instant success.

That, of course, was just about 15 years ago, and nearly a decade since MiB‘s poorly-received sequel. MiB3‘s opening sequence, in which alien megavillain Boris the Animal (played with gruesome pleasure by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement) escapes from a large prison stationed on Earth’s moon, attains more sighs than thrills. But once our familiar characters, Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), appear onscreen, we realize just how much we have missed them, and how great actors, superb chemistry, and pure charm can make entertainment out of mediocre material. Although the narrative of MiB3 may seem by-the-numbers on paper, it soon descends into the clever aliens-on-Earth humor we have come to expect from the franchise, but with a newfound twist – we know about the MiB organization in our own time, how men and women with black suits and sunglasses help facilitate the activity of alien immigrants on Earth. But what about over 50 years ago?

We are taken back to an era when even an amazingly cool, top-secret organization had an office straight out of Med Men, vomit-colored fabric and female secretaries galore. We arrive there because Boris has traveled back in time to kill K, seeking revenge and attempting to off the scruffy agent before K has the chance to shoot off one of his arms … and put him behind lunar bars. Through “time jump” technology, J also travels back to ’69 to save his partner, only to find that he is played by Josh Brolin.

Brolin’s portrayal of Jones is what truly gets the audience involved, imitating his dialect and facial expressions with virtuoso hilarity, and allowing the character to be touchingly reminiscent of a much younger man, not yet wisened by the traumatic years to come. It is revealed that K had a crush on Agent O (Emma Thompson) back in his younger days, the woman who would eventually become MiB’s chief. The failure to develop this relationship, or even give Thompson’s character much of anything to do, is likely a display of the many rewrites done on Cohen’s script (by veteran screenwriter David Koepp, and for the time-travel segment of the film, Jeff Nathanson, a fairly recent, frequented collaborator of executive producer Steven Spielberg).

Yet MiB3 gets the job done; there is no abundance of humor or violence, yet it remains a well-oiled machine that still knows how to entertain. The gooey action arrives in specific sequences, including a terrific climax at Cape Canaveral, taking place just minutes before that fateful Apollo 11 rocket is due to launch. The laughs, meanwhile, are drawn mainly through Smith’s out-of-time placement within the ’60s, as well as the chemistry he shares with Brolin; we have no trouble believing that this is a younger version of K. In fact, the resemblance is uncanny. Smith is a fabulous actor, and in a time of Robert Pattinsons and Sam Worthingtons, it would be nice to see him re-exert a little of that ’90s box-office magic just a little more often. It would also be great to see Clement in a role not dominated by facepaint and CGI, allowing him to exert his acting chops on something other than the role of a standard villain.

It’s a bundle of fun to see J reacting to his surroundings in 1969, a year when an African-American man would be looked at funny for wearing a suite, or even pulled over by the cops for driving a car nicer than their own (minus the flashing lights). The problem lies in the fact that MiB3 doesn’t dig deeper. Sure, this segment has some clever references and situations (SNL’s Bill Hader even satirically portrays of Andy Warhol), but I never felt completely engrained in 1969. The film simply recognizes that the year existed, rather than convincing us that we have travelled along with J. I do commend MiB3 for not overdoing it, something that is all too easy to do with nostalgic humor, but for a film that went into production without a completed script, it is easy to sense this lack of a fully developed environment.

One of the principle charms of the Men in Black series has been the creature design of Rick Baker. I am therefore a bit disappointed in not only the lack of variety in alien species this time around, but also how few of any there are. However, Boris the Animal is an interesting critter, indeed, as is the alien character who lies at the heart of this film, Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg). It is through Griffin that the profound subtlety of Cohen’s script comes to reach us, in addition to a plot device that lends the material more unexpected twists than you may think.

Griffin is a charming character, but gifted with a dark ability – he can see multiple futures at the same instant, those both good and devastating, yet still lingers on the powerful hope that the human race may finally get its act together. We have had our ups and downs, and it would take quite a bit of moral analysis to see if we have improved since 1969. But the fact that Griffin still exists in J’s own time is a sure sign that at the very least, we have not lost the desire to better ourselves.

After a crackerjack climax, MiB3 surprises us with a scene that not only takes full advantage of the time travel premise, but also touches us by looking at the J-K relationship with a new perspective. It is a fantastic scene, and surely the most moving of any in the Men in Black series. This third installment knows its influences, culminating in a La Jetee/12 Monkeys scenario, and only falling a bit flat when J arrives back home. I was expecting a knockout resolution, similar to that of Back to the Future, but never quite received it.

The film is satisfying, yes, mostly because of the subtle delivery, clever plot design, and consistently awesome effects. And of course, there’s Brolin, who nails a near-impossible task. MiB3 doesn’t elaborate on many aspects, even those it does correctly, but maybe that’s why it is so entertaining. What you would expect to be redundant is made fresh, mostly due to a lack of overindulgence. Besides Brolin, there is not much to make the film memorable, but it instills in us something sequels are almost never able to accomplish. We understand these characters, and the relationship between them, better than ever before. There’s nothing nostalgic about it. That, my friend, is progressive.

Movie Journal – 5/27/2012

Well, it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I’ve been home from school for approximately two and a half weeks. Having actual time has permitted me to watch plenty of films, so naturally, I have failed to keep up with the Movie Journal component of this blog. Consider this my recap. There are quite a few movies here, so I decided to tackle this thing with capsule reviews, Leonard Maltin style. With the good number of films I will have access to this summer, don’t be surprised if I utilize this format more often. As for this entry, Mulholland Drive takes the cake. Enjoy!

 

The French Connection (1971)     5/5

Directed by William Friedkin (20th Century Fox)

Simply one of the greatest crime films ever made, examining the smuggling of drugs from France to the U.S., and proving that some stories can only be told through guerilla filmmaking. Before going on to make The Exorcist, director William Friedkin marched into New York City and crafted this thrilling tale of corruption, so authentic it almost resembles docudrama. Gene Hackman gives an Oscar-winning performance as “Popeye” Doyle, the cop who will stop at nothing to catch the bad guys, even if it means putting himself or others at risk. And who could forget that car chase? The concluding sequence will haunt you as much as the prior left you breathless with excitement.

 

 

Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003)     4/5

Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino (Miramax Films)

It may fail to rank with Tarantino’s best work, but the movie loving auteur’s first segment of his two-part, revenge epic is still an extraordinary exercise in style, although the filmmaker’s revery in excess may come across silly at times. Kill Bill, Volume 1 pays homage to Asian/kung-fu cinema, blaxpoitation films, spaghetti westerns, and everything in between, all while telling a conventional story in one of his signature, non-linear narratives (and even interluding with a superb, anime sequence).

Just when you feel overwhelmed by pop culture and cinephilia, you realize just how interesting and fun Tarantino’s characters actually are, Uma Thurman playing “The Bride” with both ferocityand inner-sadness. And boy, does she kick ass; just take the film’s climactic action sequence, as The Bride takes on countless minions, slices their bodies to pieces, and spills more blood than you could possibly imagine. Plus, it tells us something about Tarantino that we had not previously known. He can frame action sequences better than most “action” directors.

 

 

Kill Bill, Volume 2 (2004)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino (Miramax Films)

However, it is Volume 2 that fully realizes Tarantino’s aspirations for what Kill Bill could be. In this dialogue-heavy conclusion, Tarantino proves he is telling a quite compelling character story, rather than a simple tale of violent revenge. What really takes precedent here is the relationship between The Bride and Bill, the final, and most prominent, member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, and the one Uma’s character must kill to fully exert her revenge.

But Bill (played by David Carradine in a spectacular performance) has history with The Bride that has been gradually developed throughout Tarantino’s two parts, and what this forces the audience to examine – love, purpose, anger, regret, and of course, the nature of revenge, is likely more profound than anything Tarantino has dealt with before. In fact, this conclusion goes so far as to even touch us. The Kill Bill films slightly fall below the bloody excellence of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds, but they do show the former video-store employee in a quite different light. He shows us what he loves, and invites us to take part in how it makes him feel.

 

 

Lifeforce (1985)     2.5/5

Directed by Tobe Hooper (Tri-Star Pictures)

Coming off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem’s Lot, and Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper thought it would be a great idea to adapt Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel, The Space Vampires. The intent was to pay homage to British science-fiction, the result – a seemingly half-hearted attempt to make several different types of sci-fi/horror films. We have elements of Alien, Romero’s Dead series, and several others, with little narrative ingenuity to tie such strange story elements together. If it’s any consolation, it seems as though the kinky, romantic elements of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) could’ve been inspired by Hooper’s film, although Coppola’s gothic epic is far different, indeed.

Segments of Lifeforce are surely entertaining, but it is hard to determine what is more frustrating; the film’s incessant drive to shift from alien, to vampire, to zombie story, or the fact that the movie simply doesn’t play by its own rules. In the end, it makes very little sense. Maybe had more of Hooper’s space prologue remained intact (much of it was cut through studio intervention), Lifeforce may have received the benefit of a bit more consistency. As it stands now, the film is a campy mess.

 

 

Mulholland Drive (2001)     5/5

Written & Directed by David Lynch (Universal Pictures)

Experiences like Mulholland Drive are the reason we go to the movies. It grabs you and doesn’t let go, mainly because you don’t have a choice. Every step of the way, David Lynch is one step ahead of you. He simply anticipates every reaction, and draws you into something you can’t escape. And what a wonderful trip it is. Lynch, who has made such dark classics as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Blue Velvet, starts things out with a surprisingly straight face. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) comes to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress, yet stumbles upon Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a survivor of a car accident on Mulholland Drive, leaving her with no memory.

As we come to discover a colorful cast of bizarre characters and vignettes, we soon realize all will descend into madness. Originally conceived as a television series, it is a blessing that the pilot was rejected, considering cinema is no doubt Mulholland Drive‘s proper medium. Characters soon switch roles, events may or may not have happened, and we come to wonder what has been idealized, who has been fantasizing about what/who, and what, if anything, is occurring before our eyes.

The last half hour of the film operates by pure dream logic, and while the film overall is capable of telling a conceivable story, multiple viewing are surely required, and deserved. It is incredible how Lynch ties in elements to create a satisfying film, penetrating our thoughts and emotions in such a way that we feel intricately involved, even if we may not know what is going on. Buried beneath it all, however, is a love story so tragic and dark, erotic and bizarre. We may not fully understand it, but it makes us feel something, and Lynch knows that.

You can consider Mulholland Drive as noir if you wish, but Lynch’s psychological style and dynamic cinematography surely contribute to a genre he helped create – American Surrealism. Like Sunset Boulevard before it, Lynch’s film is, in more ways than one, a “f**k you” to Hollywood. It represents the City of Angels not as a place where one discovers dreams, but in their pursuit, a descent into one’s own nightmares. Through Mulholland Drive, we are shown that few know our deepest fears and desires like David Lynch.

 

 

The Others (2001)     3.5/5

Written & Directed by Alejandro Amenabar (Dimension Films)

Although it hinges on a twist that just barely lingers above obvious, Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others is a genuinely spooky, haunted house story, the writer-director achieving quite effective terror from his audience, through music (composed by Amenabar himself), sound, and reaction shots to who knows what. The plot elements are fairly exaggerated, and if The Others had been a bit more subtle about where it was going, it only would have been scarier. However, Amenabar does a terrific job with atmosphere, filling a desolate house with emotion and fear of the unknown. Nicole Kidman, who gives a captivating performance as a woman trying not to go insane, was nominated for a Golden Globe.

The child actors who play her offspring (and who, we are told, have a condition that prevents them from being exposed to direct light) are also fantastic. At the heart of the film is a rather sad story of a woman desperately awaiting her husband’s return from war. What muddles it are some inconsistencies that will be dismissed by many as unimportant. Yet this all culminates in an ending that succeeds in wanting to make you see the film again. I don’t think I will, however, holding onto the fear that the plot will unravel before my eyes. I will instead savor the fear I felt throughout many scenes, and the skill with which Amenabar drew out my own anxieties.

 

 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)     4/5

Directed by Edgar Wright (Universal Pictures)

As Scott Pilgrim began, I felt overwhelmed by hipness, a near-insane mash-up of retro gaming and indie music culture, that which at first was hard to take, but soon drew me in with its utter inventiveness. Michael Cera gives a hilarious performance as Michael Cera (a.k.a. Scott Pilgrim) who must defeat the “seven evil exes” of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in order to properly date her. It may seem difficult to conceptualize that premise, especially when the film jumps right into the visual exuberance of Edgar Wright (who directed Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). From there, it is hard to catch your breath.

But who better to direct this indescribably fun graphic novel adaptation? The visuals are eye-popping to say the least, and are likely to be nothing like you have ever seen before; if you play a lot of video games (or are in a local band with a ridiculous name) you will likely be in heaven. But even if you aren’t young or hip, the script (co-written by Wright), full of wit, clever dialogue, and purposefully bad puns, is hard to resist. Scott Pilgrim isn’t too concerned with logic, but you are unlikely to find many modern films this visually involving, and for the most part, one so joyously in love with itself. There’s also a bittersweet love triangle, to boot. Cult film in the making.

 

 

Shaft (1971)     4/5

Directed by Gordon Parks (MGM)

One of cinema’s most memorable characters, John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree), wasn’t one to screw around. If you pissed him off, he would be the first to let you know. If you tried to take a smack at him, he would bash a bottle over your head. In 1971, the world was ready for Shaft, and as a result, it inspired a continuous strand of blaxpoitation pictures. While Gordon Parks’ film never quite tells a unique crime story, the African-American detective it places in front of an audience is a character for the ages, established by Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme.

Apart from its historical significance, Shaft is pretty much as you would expect, demonstrating characteristic fetishes of the blaxpoitation period (ex. hesitant zooms, groovy sex scenes). However, there are some superbly edited action scenes in Shaft, and although this world may seem a little more artificial than say … The French Connection, all of these components blend to produce a film of a quite pleasurable sensibility, and despite not being all that profound, one that we can easily sense as important. Black or white, you’ll be hard-pressed not to cheer for John Shaft.

Golden Celluloid – 5/23/2012

American Graffiti (1973)

Directed by George Lucas (Universal Pictures)

Before George Lucas spawned the spectacular Star Wars franchise in 1977, which arguably shifted American cinema from New Wave-style art films to narrative-driven blockbusters, he crafted one the finest movies ever made about teenagers – American Graffiti. It is a shame that once the pop culture sensationalism of Star Wars took the country by storm, Lucas abandoned his filmmaking potential, not only failing to reverse the trend he began, but never again utilizing such behind-the-camera talent for anything but his game-changing, science-fiction franchise.

 

The story: “Where were you in ’62?” reads the tagline of American Graffiti, a film about a group of high school graduates and their last night of summer, set in Modesto, California during that very year. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), has recently obtained a scholarship for college, yet he can’t help but wish life would slow down; in fact, he is considering not going at all. Meanwhile, his buddy Steve (Ron Howard) is gung-ho about going away to school, yet thinks he may have to break up with the girl he loves, Curt’s sister (Cindy Williams).

Along for the ride are their friends John (Paul Le Mat) and Toad (Charles Martin Smith), in addition to assorted characters that include a local speed demon who hopes to rival John, played by Harrison Ford. And of course, there is that girl (Suzanne Somers) cruising around town in a ’56 Thunderbird; the one who Curt wonders if he has seen before, thinks he loves, and desperately hopes to find before he makes his fateful decision.

 

Why you should see it: George Lucas made a film that not only captures a specific time and place with the accuracy of a historical artifact (the cars, the costumes, the dialogue, Mel’s Drive In, and good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll), but also functions as a relatable tale for teenagers of any generation. Co-produced by Lucas’s friend and fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and co-written by Lucas himself, the free-form (and at the time, avant-garde) style of American Graffiti, now developed into the so-called “hang-out” genre, would be utilized by other filmmakers to make similarly accomplished teen films, namely those directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused).

Yet it all began with Lucas, and what an incredible job he has done of recreating this cultural period in American history, while also allowing his audience to emphasize with a colorful cast of characters, those who they are likely to know in their own lives (or those they did know in high school). No matter what decade you call your own, those days will come rushing back, and the emotion of those feeling just as strong in your heart.

It’s all a bit of nostalgic fun, but also operates as a bittersweet story of innocence, and remarkably enough, a serious, societal examination. American Graffiti is even more relevant today, as modern society grapples with such moral issues as abortion, gay marriage, protests on Wall Street, health care, and the ever-present topic of war, it touches us to remember a time when staying or going, getting/keeping the girl, deciding whether or not to accept a dangerous challenge, or snagging some booze for the night were the most important things in a very small world.

It soon becomes obvious why Curt and Steve begin to reverse their opinions about leaving town; sometimes we have responsibilities tied to where we come from, people who simply need us to be with them. In other situations, we require the nerve to break out of our complacent lifestyles, and explore options that are offered outside of the society we have been born into. Some dreams are meant to be chased, others left behind. It all depends on where they lie. But in whatever situation these characters find themselves in, it soon occurs to them that they will not be young forever. Innocence is lost, and no matter how hard the simplest decision may be, each is one step closer toward growing up.

As for the topic of innocence, American Graffiti‘s historical context places it directly before one of the country’s darkest periods, that of war, assassination, and counterculture; far different from the “wholesome” childhood these kids have likely received. The decisions that would be made in the mid to late ’60s would be far greater than those that any of these teens have been pressured to make, and their consequences would be a matter of life or death. This is an eternal story, but the ’62 setting makes our characters’ feelings seem so much more delicate; many moments are hilarious, some are sad, the film breaks your heart, but in many ways, is quite uplifting. These are all terrific performances, and it puts a smile on your face to think of Dreyfuss, Howard, or Ford as unknowns, which they surely were 1973. And when set to the tunes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, and many others, the effect is sublime.

Like Curt, we are ultimately left with that vision of a white Thunderbird, and an angel sitting inside. These characters are lost, but when confronted with a choice that may affect the rest of their lives, are somehow able to detect the beauty that may be waiting for them if the right path is chosen. In any case, some portion of present/future happiness must be sacrificed. With an equal quotient of intelligence and hope, we all hold onto the great dream that if we reflect deeply, and realize that what is easy (or what we currently desire) may not always be right, we will make happiness for ourselves. The angel, while ever elusive, has another benefit aside from her looks, or at the very least, one we can always imagine. She’s willing to wait.

Round Peg, Square Hole

Battleship (May 18, 2012)     2.5/5

Directed by Peter Berg (Universal Pictures)

About halfway through Peter Berg’s Battleship, my attention wandered to William Sadler’s performance in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, as the character of Death frustratingly admitted to our beloved protagonists – “you’ve sunk my battlesheeep!” The joy I felt at that moment was not only absent throughout most of Berg’s film, but also more worthy of my attention than whatever was onscreen a majority of the time. At the very least, Battleship‘s terrific visuals make the naval/alien shenanigans passively entertaining, while still attempting nostalgic themes and an explosive payoff; those which conjointly provide any significance the film hopes to convey.

To be fair, I am not going to be that snobby critic who attempts to find substance in a summer movie that couldn’t care less. But to some extent, I have the right to judge Battleship on how well it executes the elements that it seeks to deliver successfully. I suppose the first, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, is to pay homage to the board game that the film is based on. The structure of the sea battles does indeed parallel that of the game (a subplot requires our heroes to search for the alien ships on a grid-like structure, the enemy’s missiles look like pegs, etc.), and while you may laugh at how desperate this may seem, the effect is quite fun. And with all the Bay-esque clichés Battleship gleeful accepts, it is nice to know that the movie plays upon its own ridiculous existence.

Considering all the toys and byproducts Hasbro hopes to sell from its newfound journey into movie distribution (another franchise being the popular Transformers series), it should also be obvious that Battleship is geared toward younger audiences. This shows in the simplistic narrative, awful characters, and hilariously half-witted dialogue, although the package is better shot and edited than Michael Bay’s messy, cars-turned-robots trilogy. The problem lies in the script, written by Jon & Erich Hoeber (Red, Whiteout), although it redeems itself with an exciting finish.

The character ensemble always seems to be the first-drawn structure for big budget, alien/disaster films, Battleship being no exception. It certainly doesn’t help that the characters here are half-stereotype, half-replica of other characters in better movies, the dialogue doing little to redeem it. The story functions in quite the same way, which could be forgiven, if not for the little human involvement that could possibly lead us to care. What does keep us looking at the screen are all the lovely explosions, and imaginative design of both the aliens and spacecrafts, propelling a narrative that humorously lingers in retro mode.

But I guess Battleship attempts something, and for that, it packs a little more in its cannons than can be reasonably expected. The characters interact in a decent enough manner to drive the events of a typical man vs. alien story, pay homage to a goddamn board game, and salute American veterans, in addition to those still serving today. As far as plot summary goes, we have badboy Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) who has recently entered the Navy, his more disciplined brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), his chick, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), and her admiral father, played by Liam Neeson. There’s also a role played by popular pop artist Rihanna; she’s not half bad either, yet the script keeps on insisting that she must say “funny” things, as if we wouldn’t accept her unless we couldn’t believe her in the role. In fact, the lead performances are all fairly decent, although the roles intended for comic relief (such as those by Jesse Plemons and Hamish Linklater) can be quite annoying.

The writers of Battleship have also appeared to rely on expectation quite a lot; Liam Neeson probably has only 10 minutes of screen time, yet we already view him as such a badass (his success with Taken has certainly aided this opinion amongst younger audiences), that the film feels no need to elaborate on how we should view the character. In fact, he does basically nothing. Berg, who has made predictable (yet to some extent, slightly audacious), action films, such as The Kingdom and Hancock, in addition to co-writing/directing critically acclaimed football film Friday Night Lights, makes the decision to cast real veterans in quite a few roles, mainly double-leg amputee Gregory D. Gadson.

I suppose Berg wants us to realize that this incredible guy is a veteran before coming to see his movie, because if he had wanted to get an inspiring performance (one that would fully support the message he hopes to relay), then he should’ve hired an actor who could give a “great” performance. This is a circumstance where an actual actor could play a veteran better than the veteran himself. Gadson may do a fine job in the position he was requested to fill, but the use of veterans, no matter how self-righteous it may make Berg’s audience feel, is sort of a predictable ploy on our emotions (the overbearing, classic rock soundtrack certainly doesn’t help either). Like many aspects of Battleship, I enjoyed what was attempted, but couldn’t help notice how undeveloped it came across. But at the end of the day, who really cares?

You’re coming for the CGI. And for the visual effects alone, Battleship will be a hit. Yet I guarantee few who walk out of the theater will ever want to see Peter Berg’s popcorn flick again; it simply has no lasting appeal. To make a confession, I never found Hasbro’s board game to be all that exciting. While the film has quite a few exciting sequences, the general conceit failed to prevent my mind from wandering, or my body from drifting asleep. Screw the toys. I might find myself returning to Battleship‘s appropriate medium; placing pegs where they belong. Maybe it will be more fun than I remember. As for the film, I’m not so sure.

In order to support the structure of Hasbro’s original product, a plot device allows very little to feel at stake in Battleship, a problem when the fate of the world actually hangs in the balance. In other words, Berg throws a lot of logic to the wind for the sake of gimmick. You’ll want to bash the stupid narrative, punch these characters in the face, and in many cases, cover your ears due to the ridiculous things they have to say. But throughout the whole, loud ordeal, it’s likely that you’ll find enjoyment from watching America’s finest blast evil space lizards out of the water. That’s one feature the board game could never replicate, but with the release of Battleship, an updated version is undoubtedly on the shelves right now. It probably costs more than a movie ticket.

Movie Journal – 5/12/2012

Face/Off (1997)     4/5

Directed by John Woo (Paramount Pictures)

In Empire’s original review of Face/Off, critic Adam Smith stated that “in the end, this may be [John Woo’s] finest moment so far … which, by default, puts it in as having a strong claim on the title ‘best action movie ever made.'” Face/Off was basically Woo’s first critically and commercially lauded film in America, having established himself as one of action cinema’s greatest directors in Hong Kong (exemplified by the bloodsoaked artistry of Hard-Boiled and The Killer). The Chinese director has never been one for subtlety; his movies utilize kinetic action sequences, ironic humor, obvious symbolism, intense emotion, and ridiculous plotting to really …. well, get in your face.

Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, this was a script that the duo had been trying to sell for nearly a decade, and within the first ten minutes of Face/Off, it becomes obvious why. Not only is the subject matter of the film just plain weird, but some scenes are indeed, quite contrived, contrasting with the originality of the film’s basic premise. Plus, with the wrong people involved, Face/Off could’ve flopped easily. Luckily, John Woo guided a crazy idea into a near-masterpiece of action poetry, using these contrivances to unleash his full imagination, in addition to coaching quite astonishing performances by John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. The result is simply one of cinema’s greatest popcorn blockbusters.

Through a series of events that I won’t bother outlining, terrorist Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage) and FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) end up surgically switching faces, providing each actor the once-in-a-career opportunity to play …. another actor? Cage and Travolta possibly give two of the 90’s greatest performances, convincing us that under each man’s face lies the other man. They accomplish this through subtle mannerisms, changes in dialect, and courtesy to Werb and Colleary, very well-written characters. Travolta playing Cage and Cage playing Travolta is one of the film’s greatest pleasures, that which you are unlikely to find in any other movie.

What makes Face/Off impeccable is that it does not allow Woo’s incredible action sequences and set-pieces to diminish the appeal of such an interesting character story, despite a few cringe-worthy moments of cliché that advance it. But as previously mentioned, it doesn’t matter to Woo that some scenes are fodder when compared to the rest (the opening scene immediately sets the tone here); if he has something to share with his audience, whether emotionally, physically, or thematically, he will display it in the most visual way. What prevents Face/Off from reaching a higher plethora of cinema (but also increases its pulpy appeal) is this – the film is never quite sure whether it is a self-reflective play on its own ridiculousness, or just a straight-faced exercise in ridiculous. Yet this aspect of Face/Off is secondary to the many things worth commending.

Whether in an airplane hangar, a bizarre prison, a safehouse, or the film’s climactic speedboat chase, anyone unfamiliar with Woo’s work will quickly realize that he knows how to stage action like no other. He is one of few directors who uses slow-motion effectively, emphasizing moments of suspense in sequences of outrageously exciting gunplay. It’s also killer to see how well Woo translates his Hong Kong-formula to American cinema, filming in exotic locales and elaborate sets, yet still making the primary battle between two men, and their complex, thematic struggles.

Mainly, Woo questions the concept of identity; it is not until these men get under each other’s skin that they actually begin to understand each other, or better understand themselves. The face, being humanity’s primary source of identity, is also examined as a mechanism of definition; how it is used by the person in question defines whether it is a face or a mask. In the end, Face/Off may not be the greatest action movie ever made, but it did raise the bar. In essence, John Woo removed the face we have come to expect from American action films, replacing it with a flick that is unafraid to think, feel, or simply be itself.

$207,438,708 … Divided By Six

The Avengers (2012)     4/5

Written & Directed by Joss Whedon (Walt Disney Pictures)

The superhero flick is in trouble. What was once a fresh, fun genre has descended into two categories: the dark, psychological drama reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and the more lightweight, cash-centered gloss of the Marvel movies. It seems heartbreaking that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which was released an astonishing ten years ago, has now been pushed into the background by Marvel’s reboot of the record-breaking franchise, the hipster-friendly Amazing Spider-Man. The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s conclusion to his “Dark Knight trilogy,” will also be released this summer. I have no doubt that both will be highly entertaining, Nolan’s blockbuster (despite a horrid title) likely to be the better film. Yes, I have begun this review with cynicism, but the point I am trying to make is this – superhero movies are everywhere in the 21st century, so how do we separate the cash cows from genuine works of fanboy creativity?

Since we first saw Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has been gradually building toward The Avengers, a super-mashup of the comic book label’s greatest heroes, and an obvious ploy for lots and lots of dough. Disregarding the actual quality of The Avengers, it is obvious that audiences will attend no matter what, hence the opening-weekend record included in my title. But summer box-office success relies on two other, essential mechanisms – repeat viewings, and word-of-mouth. So why not make The Avengers , well … good? (Or at least convince audiences that their money is being well-spent). That is exactly what Marvel (now owned by Disney), has done with their magnificent assembly of ass-kicking greatness. It could’ve easily gone the other way. But the people running this show aren’t dumb, and they know that to some extent, audiences aren’t either. So naturally, they hired Joss Whedon.

Whedon, king of the nerds, having created such successful cult programs as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, has simply written a killer script; The Avengers is funny and explosive, aided by the ridiculously clever interactions between our favorite heroes. You can tell that Whedon simply loves the characters, and thankfully enough, believes that there is enough strength left in the genre to craft something special. His efforts mirror those of the superheroes in film, coming together (despite each being freakishly singular) to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal. Cheesy, yes, but highly effective.  In order for this to work, talented people must be involved. Whedon certainly has them.

I saw The Avengers without having previously viewed last year’s Thor, the only film of the “Avengers saga” I have missed (those that lead up to The Avengers include Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger). Although seeing Thor would have certainly aided my background information entering The Avengers, in addition to enhancing my excitement and anticipation, seeing all of those previous films isn’t necessary. However, viewing them will definitely add to the fun. Whedon does a fantastic job for rewarding fans who have sat through each of Marvel’s releases, incorporating story elements from all (the narrative most closely follows story elements from Thor), yet still touching on everything important for the newbies. But if you still don’t know what a “Hulk” is, regrettably, The Avengers probably isn’t for you.

The main heroes involved, organized by Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson, a momentously excellent decision), the director of secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D., are Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing previous angryman Edward Norton), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Their nemesis is Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who plans to use a device called the Tesseract (well-known to those who have seen the previous films) to summon an alien army that will conquer Earth. Nothing quite special about that plot synopsis. But that is forgivable. When six superheroes are involved, delivery is what matters. And if there is one thing The Avengers does, it is deliver, deliver, deliver.

Whedon writes fabulous dialogue, so it is no surprise that the film is consistently humorous, and in some instances, clever to the point of hilarity. But his principle success is how well he writes these familiar characters, and uses their individual personalities to create both conflict and fusion. Downey, who reprises his role as Tony Stark, is terrific as ever, egocentric and sarcastic until his heroism is called upon. This characterization contrasts with that of Evans as Captain America, who is both wholeheartedly courageous and wholesomely valued. Mark Ruffalo, snagging the role played by Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (Norton is infamously noted for his lack of being a “team player”), also provides a satisfying, more mellowed-out vision of the Bruce Banner character, who has attempted selflessness as a way to avoid the big green guy within his soul (and who will eventually become unleashed with full, CGI velocity).

Meanwhile, Hemsworth plays Thor with just the right amount of English-accent camp, showing muscle when it matters, and mixing terrifically with his brother, whose villainy is portrayed successfully by Tom Hiddleston, applying sinister/pathetic equally, and therefore allowing us to better understand the underlying, brotherly conflict at hand. The relationship between Black Widow (Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), however understated, also provides much-needed, underlying character development. It is not elaborate by any means, but like many aspects of The Avengers, is skillfully snuck into the film.

As for the action sequences, it is great to know that The Avengers was made by people who actually know what they’re doing. From one awesome set-piece to the next, however quick-cut, I was able to fully observe continuity between shots, and therefore, actually know what was going on. The digital effects are breathtaking, as are the cool things that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey does with the camera. He plays with low-angles, focus, camera position, and in one instance, stages a continuous shot that made me want to applaud. At this point, each of our heroes is fighting in a separate location within the same cityscape, and in one, sweeping movement, McGarvey manages to capture the action of each mini-battle within a long-duration shot.

The key to action sequences is to know when to cut; Michael Bay would prefer to do it every half-second, not allowing us to observe continuity or where people/objects actually are within a physical location. The final battle of The Avengers takes place in New York City, and despite how exciting, well-shot, and superbly edited it is, irony stems from the fact that Michael Bay already did this in the Tranformers movies a billion times. Granted, The Avengers‘ sequence is better filmed, and in general, more awesome than it was in the Transformers films, but the daytime locale, robotic alien ships (although the creatures themselves are very well-designed), and exploding buildings seem all too familiar at this point.

Despite how entertained I was by this climax, I felt slightly underwhelmed when it was over. I would like to note that I didn’t see The Avengers in 3D (which was converted in post-production), although I’m sure I would enjoy doing so upon a second viewing. Although post-production 3D is generally an invitation for disaster, the filmmakers surely recognized that this conversion would occur, and have staged their scenes with enough depth of field to warrant an extra dimension.

There may be several aspects of The Avengers that are by-the-numbers, but the way Whedon presents the material makes it seem new again. So let’s give credit where credit is due. Joss Whedon has made a superhero movie that reminds us how much we love superhero movies, through nothing other than giving us exactly what we want – action, humor, character, drama, heart, emotion, and best of all, something that doesn’t take itself too damn seriously. For better or worse, The Avengers convinces us that men in tights are still alive and well. We’ll see what happens from here. For now, let’s just consider it 2002.

Movie Journal – 5/5/2012

Baraka (1993)     4.5/5

Directed by Ron Fricke (MPI)

Shot in 70mm, Baraka is a large-scale, experimental documentary, fusing together image and sound to craft an awe-inspiring vision of life. Director Ron Fricke has described the film as a “guided meditation,” the title often being translated as “blessing” in a variety of languages. And a blessing it surely is. Through a wide array of shots, captured in “24 countries on six continents” (in addition to some beautiful footage of the cosmos), Fricke provides a breathtaking piece of art that examines what it means to be alive on this planet. There is no voiceover, no dialogue. The film’s tagline, “a world beyond words,” pretty much sums up the entire package.

What Fricke examines is loosely divided into three categories: nature, nature interrupted by human activity, and the aspects of nature that have continued to live on, coexisting with humanity, and prompting us to discover our own place within the natural world. From volcanoes, to tribal ceremony, to Auschwitz, Fricke shows us things that many of us will never have the opportunity to experience in real life; in other cases, he shows us things that we may very well know of, but tend to purposefully ignore. The context of the imagery we see (where it was shot, or even what it is) tends not to matter; Baraka‘s significance lies in the overall themes that it addresses, through a kaleidoscopic trip that feels startlingly fragile and real.

In the case of Fricke’s film, the medium of cinema is used to bring us closer to our world; to enrapture us in things that may be essential to our understanding of existence, but might not appear to us in any other way. It is a wonder how many of these shots were even obtained. Fricke, who was the cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 art film Koyaanisqatsi (which was arguably the first of its kind), basically makes a follow-up to that film through Baraka, despite the fact that the prior film has two sequels of its own. For fans of that film, it is slightly frustrating to see how Fricke uses imagery that is almost exactly the same, especially during the film’s time-lapse city sequence. Yet Baraka certainly has a different tone, and a slightly differentiated message. Case and point – if Fricke had wanted to make the same film again, he would’ve hired Philip Glass.

The score by Michael Stearns is impressive, giving every moment its due emphasis. In defense of Fricke’s repeated techniques, it is more interesting to note his cinematographic skills as an aspect of genre, rather than his own stylistic fetishes. There is plenty of experimental cinema out there, but Reggio and Fricke created their own subgenre; the Earth-focused, cinematic tone poem, examining nature, humanity, and technology without utilization of the spoken word. Ron Fricke’s sequel to Baraka, Samsara (distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, founded by the recently departed Adam Yauch), premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, and will likely garner a limited release before the end of the year. One can only hope for more of these films. Along with their incredible imagery, there is something else that is similar between each picture made by Reggio and Fricke. The credits roll, you walk back out of the darkness, and into the world. You think about what you have just seen, and what you are now seeing. And after learning so much, you then realize there is so much more to know.