Friday, April 4, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Offers A Little Brooding, A Lot Of Pizzazz

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014)


Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is I need not follow up, "It's pretty good..." with, "...if you're into that sort of thing."

With rare exceptions ("The Avengers," "The Dark Knight") comic book movies face the same basic problem: If the audience can't sing along to the hymns, they just better hope the music's good. Now "The Winter Soldier" joins that flock as a movie made for both super and casual fan, devotee and novice. Those (unlike me) who know these stories will likely eat up this movie's expansion of the Marvel universe, as forthcoming characters, plots, and general sequel hopes are laid with aplomb. And the rest of us plebeians? We're still greeted with a relentlessly entertaining flick, one that largely eschews the Jason Bourne quick-cutting trough in favor of clean action sequences, deftly blending the preordained Marvel mayhem with a parable of political paranoia not far removed from 1970s thrillers built around the public's inherent distrust in the government because C'MON.

Look, no one's gonna mistake it for a lost work of John le Carre - "Tinker Tailor Soldier S.H.I.E.L.D." The subtext ain't exactly subtle. Simply having subtext in a movie such as this, though, is a cause for mild rejoicing. We're talking about a comic book movie; as with online dating, expectations are meant to be adjusted. "Not exactly smart" doesn't automatically rule out "not exactly dumb."

Two years removed from the events of "The Avengers," this sequel finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, nailing the Captain's square charm) living in Washington, D.C. and still working for S.H.I.E.L.D. After a successful mission rescuing hostages on board one of their vessels, Rogers nonetheless feels troubled about a mysterious side mission conducted by fellow agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). His digging into the matter leads him down a rabbit hole of enormous helicarriers designed to preemptively eliminate threats, the shady intrigue of senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, providing a direct link between this movie and "Three Days Of The Condor"), and HYDRA, a secret organization playing to the classic theme of creating chaos to maintain peace.

If there's one strength and weakness to be said of "The Winter Soldier," it's that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, with directors Joe and Anthony Russo (helmers of some classic episodes of "Community" and "Arrested Development") almost forget they're making a Marvel movie...until they don't. If you believe in auteur theory, Marvel sides more with "auteur for hire" theory. Got your own vision? Want to bring your unique touch? Marvel welcomes you with open arms! Just don't forget, buddy - it's their world. You're just laying a few of the bricks.

Now firmly in Phase 2 of their cinematic plan, Marvel clearly doesn't intend to regress in this universe created by their hand, and you can sometimes feel the gears creaking around "The Winter Soldier" as the Russos, for all the creative freedom granted by a mega non-sitcom budget, must adhere to the Master Plan.

Still, as textbook film-as-product goes, you can't get much more textbook awesome. Not outside "The Avengers" has a Marvel movie popped with as much joy to be on over 3000 multiplex screens. You know the drill by now. Opening action scene to set the mood. Witty banter. Friends or foes who might not be who they seem. Seemingly insurmountable setbacks. Massive "chaos supreme" closing action sequence where you picture the city's poor maintenance crew tomorrow, gazing upon the carnage as their lip quivers. 

It's a chain restaurant concoction. But who among us doesn't sometimes crave Chili's? Their shrimp tacos are underrated. 

The greatest trick pulled by "The Winter Soldier" and the Russos is making it all feel seamless. If "The Dark Knight" was commonly known as a Michael Mann crime story about men in capes and make-up, "The Winter Soldier" does the same with 70s spy thrillers, and yet it plays admirably coy about it. Stephen King wrote that if your subtext is any good, you shouldn't try to make it happen; it should just be there. "The Winter Soldier" tries exactly as hard as it should. 

As directors creating two competing tones - political paranoia and ass kickery - the Russos expertly weave them through each other. You never catch the movie saying, "There's our lesson for the day, now how 'bout these pyrotechnics?" The story emerges convincingly from the action and, even more impressive, the action emerges convincingly from the story.

How ultimately fitting that Marvel saved this story of distrust in government for Captain America. Despite this movie's obvious tonal parallels to "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan operated in full "This is our world as it is" mode. No games, no gloss. "The Winter Soldier" skates close to that territory before returning to "This is our world as we'd like it to be" - Captain America might brood, but not for long. He begins as a hero who operates with complete boyish trust in the powers that be because they're the powers that be, and when he learns his initial mission on the freighter might have secret motives, his main shock is he wasn't told. 

That's what makes him and "The Winter Soldier" so oddly compelling. Batman can't be surprised and he can't be corrupted. When Captain America becomes disillusioned with the modern state of his country, though, we believe it. And through his eyes, the movie sells the theme of paranoia that might otherwise come off as trite.

When I sat through the closing credits, it wasn't merely to pretend like I understand whatever inexplicable teaser they attach. It was out of respect.

Monday, March 31, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Leaves Mints And Joy On Your Pillow

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (directed by Wes Anderson, 2014)


Driving home from "The Grand Budapest Hotel," I felt the sneaking suspicion I had just seen Wes Anderson's best film.

Not his most meaningful, mind you, or his most profound, or his most groundbreaking, or even his best. Just his "best." A singular, jubilant distillation of everything that makes him relevant as an artist - the one he's been building to after seven other features. He's long since passed the point in his career where an audience must be wooed to see his movies. You know what an Anderson movie will be. You know if you'll like it. You know if you'll find it insufferable (to those in that camp, I respect you and pity you in equal measure...maybe more like 40/60.)

For us converted, Anderson remains a triumphant from-bottom-to-top filmmaker. Many great directors have a signature style. But for how many can you turn on any random ten-second snippet from a movie and know without a doubt who made it? A Wes Anderson world is a precise, sublime creation, built brick by brick, prop by prop, into a museum housing all his treasured obsessions. 

"Obsessions" is an especially apt word to describe his work on "Budapest." From the towering title building exteriors to the individual rooms inside, everything feels gloriously overstuffed, meticulously decorated with signs and objects and people that seem to all merit their own back stories. And surrounding it all, a movie that is somehow all at once a murder mystery, a heist, a prison break, a love story, an at-times gut busting farce, and ultimately a tender mediation on a time long-gone where grace among humanity was the norm, not the exception.

Each of these ideas alone could support an entire film. Together, they threaten to topple the birthday cake. In Anderson's master hands, they're woven seamlessly, creating a giddy, bracingly paced zipline of a movie.

True, "Budapest" and its lead character Gustave (played with committed dapperness by Ralph Fiennes) never quite pierces the cartoon shell it envelopes itself in, as "The Royal Tenenbaums" created a towering eccentricity with Gene Hackman before ultimately revealing him as someone with honest human drives pounding beneath. If the surface of an Anderson movie feels unbearably twee to the untrained eye, he effectively counterbalances that with real, lingering melancholy. "Budapest" often finds itself a little too enamored with the bric-a-brac, resting most of the responsibility for poignancy on the shoulders of a bona fide supporting character played by F. Murray Abraham.

But god, as bric-a-brac goes, can you do much better? Each shot reflects such loving care, each line of dialogue bubbles with such hilarious specificity. Anderson structures "Budapest" like a Russian doll, multiples layers of storytelling buried within. We open with a teenage girl in the present day reading a memoir penned by someone known only as The Author (Jude Law), who tells of visiting the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 as it falls on hard times and meeting its owner Zero (Abraham) who then relays how he came to own the hotel in 1932 as a lowly lobby boy under the tutelage of Gustave, the concierge. Anderson shoots each of these periods in a different aspect ratio, while at the same time employing an unprecedented (for him) level of artifice in creating his world (the hotel's exterior in particular looks so blatantly like a model to the point of drawing chuckles). 

Such moves initially come as oddly show-offy. Remember the unnecessary animation in "Life Aquatic"? As "Budapest" progresses, though, there reveals method in the madness. If Anderson's movies come chock full of whimsy, it's whimsy without the cream and sugar. Whimsy designed to mask an undercurrent of sadness. "Budapest" deals with people constantly looking back, nostalgic for times that have either gone away or never existed. Sometimes we accept that the world we live in is different from the world we desire. Other times we lie to ourselves. Zero remembers Gustave as a man of impeccable tact, yet in the flashbacks, we see lurking shades of a philanderer and an opportunist. 

That is why the blatant artifice of "Budapest" (and Anderson's work in general) becomes so important. Just because we recognize the sadness around us doesn't mean we have to accept it. Isn't it more fun to create our own fantasy version of the truth, if only for a little while? 

This throughline of Anderson's filmography culminates in "Budapest," a movie that only appears to approach the brink of overindulgence. At this point in his already remarkable career, Anderson arrives in full command of his craft, wielding the tools of filmmaking itself like a wizard uses his wand. 

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is the lightest, fluffiest, goofiest movie in his catalog (hello matte drawings, how I've missed you). It's also a gem. Thanks to Anderson for proving those two things need not be mutually exclusive.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Excels In Bloodlust Minus The Blood

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (directed by Francis Lawrence, 2013)


Early in the surprisingly involving 146 minutes of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" comes a scene that's quite telling. We're gearing up for the next round of Hunger Games, having been dumped back in this world almost immediately after the first movie ends. Our hero, the iron-slinging Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence in full "I know I'm awesome but lets be cool about it" movie star mode) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) emerged as victors from the last games but severely shook the dystopian districts of Panem, almost causing Donald Sutherland to raise his voice. In a blatant ploy to terminate them and squash any rebellion that casts Katniss and Peeta as its idols, President Snow (Sutherland) announces this year's 75th Hunger Games will pit surviving victors against each other. 

Naturally this doesn't sit well with that elite, lucky group who thought their televised combat days over. Most remain publicly polite, playing politics as best they can. Then fiery Johanna steps up to be interviewed by Panem's resident slimy talk show host (Stanley Tucci) and when asked how she feels about participating in the games again, replies to the effect of, "Fuck this and fuck you all too!" All done with requisite bleeps, because it's framed as a television show, after all.

And therein lies "Catching Fire" in a nutshell. Even in a time where vicious executions are devoured on live TV...god help you if you utter one of George Carlin's seven naughty words. For all its famed depictions of kids killing kids, for all its harsh visions of the future where architects and fashion designers appear to have collectively decided, "You know what, gray doesn't get its due," this is an oddly tame movie, all things considered - teetering right to the edge, but then leaping back to hug the wall.

But here's the thing: That's not a problem. "Catching Fire" represents the rare case of a beast wanting to swing both ways and actually succeeding. Sure, its parable of a totalitarian future that really represents our society has been done in other, better movies. Sure, its main attraction of hot people fighting in the woods plays like some ham-handed parody of "Survivor: All Stars," satire with training wheels on. Key to enjoying "Catching Fire" is to embrace the counterintuitive notion that a good movie must be original. 

"Catching Fire" is not wholly original. The series is not wholly original. What it is is exceedingly well-made, brimming with confidence and pure-pop fun and oddly high emotional involvement. Enjoy it on your own, legitimately, as an adult. You need not find a random preteen girl to accompany you as your ticket in. Actually, Filmvielle officially advises against that.

It's no secret - and a bizarre bit of irony - that the actual Hunger Games tend to be the least interesting parts of the "Hunger Games" series. In the last movie they hit with a downright thud, with the drama and moral complexity of the first half stripped away, putting the bow in Katniss' hands among a group of clearly defined villains and reducing the movie to, "Kill or be killed." As a straightforward survivor tale coupled with dystopian satire, it felt oddly clunky, and "Catching Fire" doesn't quite solve that problem.

Instead it basically just asks for a do-over. Artificially returning Katniss and Peeta to the arena is admittedly a bit of a cheat, allowing "Catching Fire" to mimic the structure of the first one as if "Home Alone 2" was a way to apologize for its predecessor. In a plot-driven novel, these similarities might seem more glaring. On screen, however, it rolls off our backs. Director Francis Lawrence (taking over for the previous installment's Gary Ross) shoots with more confidence and with a crisper sense of place, suggesting a world that feels genuinely lived in and not simply created. 

Some of this is no doubt just liberation of not being the guy who has to introduce everything. But "Catching Fire" simply feels tauter and more immediate than the last movie, which at times felt frazzled to teach us what we needed to know as fast as possible. "Catching Fire" springs forward with the sureness of a movie that knows where it's going and knows how to get there. As the first half of the movie remains invariably more interesting, writers Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy focus squarely on the relative oddness of reality TV culture and how, as a fake couple trotted around for our amusement, Katniss and Peeta are essentially winners of "The Bachelorette" as much as of a battle royale in the jungle. Through this, "Catching Fire" even lands some sneaky observations about distraction used to pacify the increasingly angry masses.

Then we have our central love triangle. Playing Katniss, Lawrence radiates a fierce vulnerability (if that's even a thing) but the fact that she excels is no surprise. In fact, this is that part of a Jennifer Lawrence review where you're required by law to say she excels. Sadly she is not surrounded by two characters her equal - I needed a full ten minutes to remember that Peeta isn't the little sister. The fault lies not in Hutcherson or Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss' secret lover in her home district. They do fine with what's given. They just aren't given much.

No doubt that shippers of the movies and novels are lumped into the old standbys Team Peeta and Team Gale. Is there such a thing as Team Whatever, Honey?

And yet even this is oddly admirable. Obviously "The Hunger Games" is not the first YA series to spin a central female protagonist into a love triangle with two chiseled suitors. What sets "Catching Fire" apart from the pack, with Lawrence as its lead, is its suggestion that the "Which fella?" game doesn't amount to a hill of dystopian beans. Katniss' worth as a person and as the hero of our story doesn't reside in the man she engages in PG-13 hanky panky with. Hell, she should really pick Woody Harrelson as Haymitch if she cares about quality. Instead she shoves romantic entanglements aside for the greater good, adding shocking dramatic weight to a movie where I didn't expect to find it.

A hero of a tentpole franchise making the dynamic choice that silly flirtations aren't as relevant as the world around her? Sign me up. Even Thor couldn't shut up about Natalie Portman.

Katniss is a heroine navigating a world with no easy choices, where even doing the right thing will inevitably result in sorrow and rejection and suffering, and "Catching Fire" represents a series ready to live up to that complexity.

I was all set to snidely close this review by comparing "Catching Fire" to a gateway drug, one its target audience can experiment with on their way to better fare. But lets not get so condescending. Here is a worthy movie by any stretch of the imagination, effective pop entertainment, and if it has limits to what it can show, at least it doesn't shy away from the reality of what it's showing.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

This Hammer Of THOR Lands With A Thud

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (directed by Alan Taylor, 2013)


If Days Inn ever includes multimedia in their motel art displays, they could do worse than "Thor: The Dark World."

Dry, soulless, and coldly calculated to avoid offending anyone, it boasts all the makings of those paintings hanging over their never-washed comforters. It doesn't make the room worse, and you immediately forget it upon departure. And if it delivers what it promises, that's only because it doesn't promise much beyond showing up.

Do me a favor. Go to Rotten Tomatoes and scan this movie's reviews. As of this writing, it stands proudly in the high 70s. Not bad for a genre that is traditionally critic-proof anyway. But why? Does it really have the spirit, the humor, the excitement, the fun you'd expect from these movies?

I'm no prude. Superhero movies can be entertaining, and I don't even require they be much more than that. There just comes a point when "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all" fatigue crashes down. We know the gist of these movies by now. We know which characters must survive, which schemes must fail, and how successful our heroes must be. The great mistake of "The Dark World" is presuming we give a damn. Never does it create characters greater than the cogs they represent. Never does it spin a story whose stakes feel real.

"The Dark World" walks down the aisle with an audience it never even wooed and expects us to say "I do." This isn't special effects linked by story. This is special effects linked by special effects, all the latest product of the Disney/Marvel machine fueled by the weeping of your increasingly empty wallet.

If it seems like I've waited a while to describe what the movie is about, that's because, well, your guess is as good as mine. It's all a bunch of arms-thrown-in-the-air nonsense; Marvel obsessors might be able to explain it better than I can. Things kick off eons ago with Malekith, apparently our bad guy in the movie, fighting with some other people. He wants to return the universe to its state before creation using some powerful red goop called aether, which is Latin for "MacGuffin." He fails, but escapes into suspended animation, only to return in the present day to complete his universe-ending quest as Thor stands in his way, and Thor's evil brother Loki from the last movie factors in, and this can all only happen because all nine worlds in the universe align for one moment, and the rest of the movie shall be represented by an ellipsis...

I dunno. It all feels like a game of Telephone where one screenwriter is fed a seed and he whispers it on down the chain, the movie stopping one step short of "purple monkey dishwasher." Maybe it started coherent. That sure ain't how we ended up.

Want a fun experiment? Approach any audience member after their screening, give them any major character - Thor, Loki, their father Odin, Malekith, Thor's returning love interest Jane - and have them describe this person without resorting to physical traits or their role in the movie (hero, villain, girlfriend, etc). These aren't people you quote afterwards. They aren't distinguished from each other. Thor is Thor, he does this is in this scene to keep the plot moving, and so on.

When kids play with their Thor action figures this holiday season by saying, "Boom boom," that will not be children being children. That will be an accurate impression.

Remember "The Avengers"? After seeing "The Dark World," this question adopts a more wistful tone. But remember the four distinct leads in that movie, all with unique, clashing personalities, involved in a story with a through-line and clearly defined stakes causing us to care about the outcome, all tied together with a whiz bang "Can you believe we're making a movie!?" sense of joy? By the end of "The Dark World," no less than the fate of the universe up for grabs. We know this because the movie tells us. Malekith intends to unleash the red MacGuffin stuff, which will bring it all down. We know this because the movie tells us. Our gang of heroes can only stop it using some series of wormholes through the different worlds. We know this because the movie tells us.

I'll grant "The Dark World" this: Not since "Ghostbusters II" has so effective a climax been built around the act of throwing red slime on the ground. But think about it. The entire universe as we know it will soon cease to exist while a Norse god and some evil orc thing dash around space through multiple wormholes. This should be goofy fun underlined by a pervasive sense of danger. Instead it plays like watered down Doctor Who fan fic with cheesy special effects. Not to mention the screenwriters' ambivalence to creating any functional rules regarding these wormholes, allowing the climax to deescalate into a free-for-all. Everything's made up, and the points don't matter!

There's still a good movie itching to be made from this character. I just know there is. A movie striking a whimsical balance between the dry Asgard mythology and the Crocodile Dundee weirdness of seeing a god in full Norse regalia walking among Earth. Instead we're left with a movie that has dozens of fingerprints, but no soul.

Chris Hemsworth's chest is more expertly crafted. And you can just Google that.

Friday, October 4, 2013

This Entire GRAVITY Review Was Written In One Take

GRAVITY (directed by Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)


Years from now, movie lovers will ask each other, "Where were you when you saw 'Gravity?'" just like people ask each other about the JFK assassination, if the JFK assassination were, you know, a good thing.

That's not necessarily saying "Gravity" is a classic film. Not necessarily saying that it's a great film (although I personally think it's the latter). But it is a landmark film. What is it we so often demand of movies - show us something we've never seen before. "Gravity" does more than show us. It takes us there, plugs us in to the surroundings, and tears down the barriers between audience and movie, between seat and screen. Few movies I can think of create such an intensely physical experience, transferring the experience of characters to our very bones.

This is what the monoliths in "2001: A Space Odyssey" pointed to. 

Linear as an arrow, the script from director Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonas tells a story of sheer survival that allows us to wonder, "Could I do this?" Two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) are in space conducting a space walk for space repairs on their space shuttle when space debris strikes (doesn't everything seem cooler with the word space?). They're robbed of all contact with Earth. Their options don't extend far beyond floating around, which they do, a lot. Alfonso and Jonas cleanly construct the ensuing 75 minutes as one thing needing to happen for the next thing to happen, otherwise no more things will happen.

There are no cuts to mission control. No flashbacks to Bullock's life back on our planet that spends the movie so cruelly in view. What little dose of spiritualism Cuarón offers could just as easily be written off as a dream. But purged of all distractions, "Gravity" finds the infinite. Lets not undersell what Cuarón accomplished here - by shooting his actors floating almost entirely outside their crafts (how often do you see that in outer space movies?), by allowing his camera to roam free through the 3D axis, by shooting his trademarked long takes with views that wobble between full background shots of Earth and the vast nothingness of stars within the same moment, and by using nonstop special effects to create a thoroughly meditative experience instead of a barrage of itself, he has done nothing less than change the very language of film.

Taken alone, that is impressive enough. But what makes "Gravity" monumental, borderline miraculous even, is Cuarón and his team do it so seamlessly. Think about your favorite special effects landmarks. The Death Star Trench Run in "Star Wars." The first T-Rex attack in "Jurassic Park." Maybe the White House explosion in "Independence Day," I dunno. Those moments are accompanied with the requisite awe. "Movie magic," as us industry insiders call it. But they also beg the immediate question, "How'd they do that?" It's part of the fun, wondering how a filmmaker pulled something off.

"Gravity" wants none of that nonsense. Once we're there, we're there, and we are absorbed. Cuarón's effects don't call attention to themselves. Instead they dazzlingly blend to create a world that feels legitimate and encompassing. It existed before Clooney and Bullock showed up, and it'll exist after they leave. As far as we're concerned, they shot this movie in space. Don't ruin the fantasy. Don't even try. 

This is where 3D becomes absolutely necessary. Trust me on this one - dig up whatever spare change you can find and splurge on the glasses. You owe yourself the spectacle. Seeing "Gravity" in 3D is the true immersive experience this tool has been waiting for, what James Cameron promised it could be. Set free from the confines of a flat plane, Cuarón's camera pivots, flips, darts, and is sometimes content to simply float and let the vastness wash over us.

It's terrifying. It's sweat-inducing. But it's also humbling and strangely inspiring, a deeply resonant experience that a week later, I'm still struggling to describe cogently. "Gravity" steadfastly never bends to emotional manipulation. When space stations are shattered by passing debris, it's with an eerie and poetic lack of sound simply because there's no sound in space. When Bullock and Clooney find themselves separated early on, it's with the cold tacitness that they might remain lost and float until they die because it's space and there's no gravity and that's just how it is.

Earth looms large throughout the movie's running time, sometimes filling the entire background. It plays like a joke that all these two people need to do is set foot back on what is so clearly in front of them. Really, outer space begins only 80 or so miles above our heads. A short road trip to visit your grandparents or see some band you like but don't even love. But once "Gravity" slips that bond, the rules change and a feeling of total, awesome insignificance seeps in. 

All begging the question of, "Why?" Why make this movie? Is it simply a special effects exercise? If so, well, bravo. It goes beyond that, though. Our actions on Earth can't help but feel important. It's all we know. But the universe is so vast and old and mystifying, and our time as a member of it is so brief. Against this barren, endless, merciless, gorgeous void, we border on nonexistence. The infinite stretches on, and we don't.

Within that framework, Cuarón chooses survival for his narrative thrust, and accompanied by an emotionally grounded, powerhouse performance from Bullock, he plunges us to a visceral situation in that very void where we have to shed the essence of who we thought we were for something stronger. We remain insignificant. Yet amongst the stars, what we do matters, if only because it matters to us. I don't know what you'll get from "Gravity." Maybe only thrills. It's a personal experience. But that's what it meant to me.

As a special effects spectacle seen on the biggest possible screen, "Gravity" is a stunner. As a cinematic experience, it brushes on transcendence.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

With RUSH, Ron Howard Proves He Could Shoot An Awesome Beer Commercial Someday

RUSH (directed by Ron Howard, 2013)


Has any director in history turned a distinct lack of style into a bigger advantage than Ron Howard?

That's not a dig at the man. Far from it, actually. His success harkens to directors of the studio system heyday, churning out product not through a burning something to say, but because filmmaking is a job, and that job requires you to say something. Clean, no-frills storytelling still requires precision and artistry, if you consider "artistry" the willingness to stand back and know when to not try too hard. The movies might be his. They're just not his.

Howard, more often than not, is a competent pizza delivery man who takes great pride in his job. You get exactly what you ordered, on time and at the agreed-upon price, and he doesn't even stick around like a jerk waiting for a tip. That's why when he makes something unexpectedly fun like "Rush," it hits with an added jolt. This isn't a for-hire director shooting the script. This is Richie Cuningham waking up one day and deciding to be the Fonz!

You know what? It actually works. Maybe this is just what happens to a director when he realizes his last movie was a Kevin James/Vince Vaughn comedy, but Ron Howard strove for something kinetic and layered and adult, and damn if he doesn't (mostly) pull it off.

Set in the rarely-visited world of Formula One racing, "Rush" concerns the true story of two drivers whose star is on the rise - James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, relishing the opportunity to show some personality) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). As portrayed in Peter Morgan's screenplay, Hunt cares more about celebrity than the intricacies of racing itself, while Lauda approaches winning with level-headed rationality, believing it can be taught like any science. Morgan argues their clashing personalities drove each other to succeed more than spouses or coaches or prizes, to the point that they need the half of a person that the other provides. Why, an observant viewer might even say they're two sides of the same coin.

Lets start with what "Rush" isn't. It isn't deep. Once Morgan and Howard establish the yin and yang relationship of the characters, there aren't many ways to go but sideways. Hunt pulls Lauda one way. Lauda pulls him in the other. Morgan's screenplay doesn't follow a theme as much as it establishes a theme and replays it. All this is interesting on a conceptual level, but dramatically it falls short, as the lives of these men never sizzle as much as when they're behind the wheel.

"Rush" also isn't sexy, at least not as much as it thinks it is. Set free by the limitless R rating, Howard reminds us that he's also the guy who made the bawdy 80s comedy "Night Shift," but he's also the guy who made the PG...most everything else. "Rush" so clearly wants to delight in the decadence of celebrity, tossing bare breasts and champagne around with a devil-may-care casualness. Something about it feels oddly off, though. If it's sexy, it's sexy like a trembling, nerdy virgin traveling to Amsterdam hoping to meet a high class prostitute. Her moves might feel erotic, but that don't mean they're real.

But enough wet blanket talk. Where "Rush" shines, and I mean really shines, is the kinetic gamesmenship on display. On the track, it feels more alive and visceral than almost any racing movie I can remember. Howard often finds himself lashed for his trademarked "solid" craftsmanship, but here it's set to full, clear-eyed advantage. His wide establishing shots allow understanding of geography. Crisp editing creates consistent placement in the action - we know where everyone is and where they're trying to be. And virtuoso special effects push the races to "You are there" extremes, with the tires almost flinging mud in our faces. Here is a movie where 3D would be superfluous.

This same earnestness carries over to the dynamic between our two leads. "Rush" doesn't have a lot to say about the nature of human nature or competition, but lets also consider how it's saying it. Grab any sports movie about a personal rivalry at random and you're almost sure to find a clear-cut pro- and antagonist. Maybe they reach the inevitable begrudging respect. Maybe they even become friends in a sequel. But the dividing lines are clear - this is who you root for, and this is who stands in his way. 

"Rush" travels the far more interesting route of shifting protagonists. As the movie progresses, sometimes even within a single scene, our loyalties move like a sliding scale. Our desire to see Hunt win is never greater than Lauda, and vice versa. By the destined "big race" in the end, one character makes a crucial decision that all but guarantees victory for the other, and yet when that victory comes, our fists aren't driven to pump. Victory and defeat aren't on "Rush's" mind. Instead it crafts two well-defined characters and asks us to consider what they mean for each other. A worthy, even noble, goal for a sports movie. You half-expect them to pull a "Rocky III" and challenge each other to a private race in the end, freeze framing just as they hit the gas.

More than anything, "Rush" represents Howard's glee of playing in the sandbox. All too willing to stand as a punching bag for those who believe themselves above the middlebrow, Howard still seems to like making movies. I mean, really just likes making them. "Rush" takes a while to find its feet (the first half feels noticeably muddier as we get used to the ping-pong structure between Hemsworth and Brühl), and once it does, it's content to hit the beats.

Howard's earnestness shines above all, though. As long as he believes in the story this much, I'm willing to go along for the ride. "Rush" doesn't add up to as much as it could, but it has a blast doing so.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Uproarious THE WORLD'S END Gives You No Desire To Drink Alone

THE WORLD'S END (directed by Edgar Wright, 2013)


God, I love it when a movie is exactly as good as I hoped it would be.

Six years after "Hot Fuzz" and almost a decade since "Shaun Of The Dead," actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost once again team with master genre satirist/fetishist Edgar Wright for "The World's End," a result that is quite simply joy incarnate. Laughs roll fast and fierce, Wright keeps the pacing at a steady clip, and to watch it with a receptive audience is to become gradually aware that we're sharing something special and we all know it.

2013 will probably yield better movies. But there won't be another more wholly entertaining. This is a movie not only for people who love movies, but for people who want to love movies.

As the last installment in their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, it's only fitting that "The World's End" concerns a band of old friends getting back together for one last hurrah. Gary King (Pegg) remains obsessed with one of the formative nights of his wayward youth: a 12 stop pub crawl called The Golden Mile, culminating in a visit with the good Dr. Ink at a place called The World's End. Unlike the friends he shared that night of debauchery with, though, Gary never got over the fact that they never finished the crawl. He still rocks the same Sisters Of Mercy tshirt and black overcoat he wore then. Now, a grown man with nowhere to go because he never chose a path, he coerces everyone (Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Frost) into giving the epic crawl another go, playing the sympathy card of his recently deceased mother. Almost like a heist movie, if the theft were of their dignity.

Vain attempts to recapture faded glory. A stunted manchild unwilling to accept that his friends moved past him. The danger from living in the past. These are the themes that concern "The World's End," and until the halfway point, Wright plays it mostly straight, his cards close to the chest. Knowing the strokes of a Cornetto movie, we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the true nature of the movie to pop its head. Key to its success, though is we're not antsy. You've seen the trailers. You know it's ultimately a send-up of science fiction, with the residents of the gang's old town replaced by pod people. And when Wright fully pulls back the curtain, it doesn't play like a sigh of relief - "Finally, we can get to the good stuff."

That's because Wright's method of satire directs as much inward as it does outward. He's patient. He's careful. In "The World's End," he takes his sweet time to create real human situations that we feel empathy for, so when the movie's gears irrevocably shift to sci-fi, it feels like a logical progression of the plot we're now firmly invested in. Were Pegg and Wright lazy people, they'd just show off their intimate knowledge of a genre they know so well, and "The World's End" would be a fun game of, "Remember when this happened in those older movies?" 

Thankfully, ambition is something they don't lack, and "The World's End" warps the familiar tropes of sci-fi to its own purpose. Pod people as they approach them really stand for the disappointment we all feel when we return to a place frozen in our minds - where the pubs had character - then facing the rude awakening that everything's changed and it's all Starbucks-ed (as one character says). It's when you reunite with old friends and assume you can launch into the same conversation as when you left off, only to discover that with years between you, you've both started different sentences.

Gary never gave up on his noble little dream that 12 pints can save his life. And the ultimate greatness of "The World's End" lies in the fact that it kind of believes him. Wright and Pegg might bow before the conventions of genre, but they don't force themselves on character. As their movie builds to its oddly affecting conclusion, there's an audaciousness to this modern comedy about arrested development acknowledging that deep down, human beings really don't grow that much - we just make the same mistakes in different places. Immaturity need not be corrosive. And instead of forcing ourselves to mature, maybe we'd have better luck trying to be happier as we are.

As artists, Pegg and Wright no doubt believe in personal growth and pushing themselves to new heights. That still doesn't give them the right to lecture, and in this tale of "Withnail & Sci," allowing a character who is ultimately pathetic to revel in his patheticness is bold and kinda admirable. For a movie that knows exactly what it wants to say, "The World's End" never gives way to cockiness or self-importance. It simply struts along, knowing the heart sometimes works better on the sleeve.

What sheer, glowing enthusiasm Wright shoots this all with, too. What gleeful kinetics. Roger Ebert was so fond of quoting Francois Truffaut, "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between." This movie absolutely represents the former. When Wright stages a massive pub fight toward the end, camera darting throughout, characters swigging beer between punches, it's with the same unhinged passion that marked his great "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," and you think here are people who are so incredibly proud to be making movies.

Shooting comedy can be so easy. Take funny people, put them in front of a static camera, and off you go. Is there a better comedic director alive today than Wright, though? Not just in his ability to pace the jokes and present them, but to interpret them? Watching a Wright comedy, you get laughs when the camera cuts just as surely as when the actors land a funny line. Movies are a visual medium, and he wants his camera to play an active role. 

I'm just so happy when a movie like this comes along, and I'd endure a dozen "Hangover III"s and "The Internship"s for it. It clicks in the ways you want and in the ways you didn't even expect. It's unrelentingly funny. It exudes complete confidence. It's overall just a great, rowdy affair. 

For a movie about people gladly crawling back to the bottom, Wright and Pegg end their trilogy never artistically richer. Kieślowski ain't got nothing on these Three Flavours.