Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Real Losers Of BATMAN V SUPERMAN Are Our Wallets, Our Time, And Us

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE: (directed by Zack Snyder, 2016)

 
 [WARNING: There may or may not be spoilers below. You're an adult. Do what you feel is best.]

Who woulda thought a movie could make us yearn for the nimble storytelling prowess of Joel Schumacher?

"Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice" (referred henceforth as "BvS") is a failure of a movie, flat-out, full stop. It's a failure as the launching pad for an extended cinematic universe. It's a failure as a match between arguably comic books' two most iconic characters. It's a failure as a collection of lines and scenes using characters.

At no point did I believe I was watching a movie about people. At few points did I believe I was watching a movie made by people. This is a Hollywood cash-grab at its ugliest and most cynical, built on a story disregarding wit, soul, or coherence knowing that, like a grimacing caped crusader in the shadows, the Warner Bros marketing team will swoop in to save the day. When you describe moments to your friends the next day, it will be with the stony detachment used when talking to a police detective. You're not even sure what happened. You just want to put the pieces together and move on with your life.

What follows is a plot summary mostly stitched from Wikipedia, because god help me if I know. Roughly two years after the ridiculous carnage of "Man Of Steel," the world is still unsure if they need or want Superman (Henry Cavill). A junior Kentucky senator (Holly Hunter) leads an investigation into the legality of his actions during terrorist stuff in Africa, I think, where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) was reporting some story. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) harbors resentment because his daddy hit him or wants to take over the world or just wants to see Superman and Batman slap it out. Either way, he takes steps to pit them together, which isn't hard, because Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) still holds a grudge against that other dude for destroying his Metropolis office building during the climax of that first movie.

Buried in "BvS" are at least half a dozen nuggets worth exploring. Is Superman worth anointing as our protector if his amazing power also wields the chaos of "Man Of Steel"? Can his old fashioned "truth and justice" ideals still exist in today's world of ambiguity? Meanwhile, what if Batman grew some grey hair around his temples after fighting crime for 20 years and decided he's tired of it? Could we still justify his brand of vigilante justice when he abuses it for personal vengeance? 

I'm not saying these concepts aren't present in "BvS." I'm saying they're blended with the finesse of putting Oreo crumbs in a McFlurry, and honestly, I'm not sure who to blame. Certainly one must look at director Zack Snyder, responsible for bringing all elements together in a package that ideally should be intelligent but accessible, thoughtful but entertaining. And what of writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer, whose clumsy screenplay juggles so many storylines that none get the chance to breathe? Or maybe it's ultimately the fault of Warner Bros and their feeble attempt at launching a DC Extended Universe. At every turn, you can practically feel them tying Synder's hands behind his back, blocking the movie he likely wanted to make for the sake of the movie they needed him to make.

Or maybe it's everyone's fault, and that's the problem. "BvS" is a lifeless product, strung together by committee and brandishing no true personal stamp. In this era of extended superhero universes, any individual movie will always further a brand. We know this. Usually we accept this. One of the greatest feats of Marvel Studios is convincing us in the moment that mere competency can be something greater. We know we're being manipulated by cinematic capitalism, but that doesn't matter if we're having fun now.

"BvS" can't even accomplish that much. No doubt the gross domestic product of a small country was thrown at the screen, and it shows. That can't hide what a ponderous and dull affair this is, one that's incoherent to an almost surreal degree. We're not talking advanced level stuff. We're talking about the basics. Character and story and motivation. The soil from which all must grow.

Characters in "BvS" don't behave like individuals. Plot points don't evolve organically from previous ones. Everyone and everything happens because the movie needs it to, because the pieces on the board game need to be assembled just so. "BvS" is not only an advertisement for the DC Universe, it's an advertisement for itself. It's a haphazard mishmash of its own reasons for existing without ever justifying why.

And what a shame, because for all his faults, Snyder is a visual artist capable of moments of poetic grandeur, and you can sense, sniffing around the frames, an urge to tell the epic story of Greek gods brought to the modern day. Instead he crumbles under the weight of franchise filmmaking and caves to his worst impulses. He doesn't adjust his style scene by scene, asking what this moment requires and what's the best way to film it. Everything adheres to the same grand but glum tone, offering no shortage of splendor but little in the way of perspective.

We don't know what we're supposed to think because even Synder doesn't seem to know what we're supposed to think. Everything just kind of dutifully trudges along, waiting for that finish line. 

That sort of bland consistency explains why he so thoroughly botches the title fight. And really, when you ruin a battle between friggin Batman and Superman, I can only summon the immortal words of William Hurt in "A History Of Violence," - how do you fuck that up? Lets examine. What does a battle between these two characters really mean? Beyond the iconography, why is it powerful? Because, I think, of the contradiction. Superman represents goodness and faith and decency - the classical American Way. Batman, on the other hand, is the darkness and hazy morals of the real world. The pain and anger and fear we all house within us. When they fight, it's meant to be a clash between the two extremes of American superheroes.

But "BvS" essentially paints them as the same person. The same morose, brooding figures. The same dark, grim personalities. Without that contrast, all thematic weight of the moment is lost, and what are we left with? Ten meager minutes of mindless, indiscriminate CGI hurtling through walls and windows. Loud crashes and punches and grimacing that quickly loses its novelty once we realize Snyder isn't taking it beyond the first level.

Then just like that, it stops and the movie picks back up to where it was before. The clash of the titans to end all clashes, and in Snyder's hands, it wields the power of that moment in every "Teletubbies" episode when they show a short film on one of their bellies.

If there's anything good to be said for "BvS," it's that Snyder and Warner Bros assembled a heckuva cast that do what they can to rise above the dreck. Affleck in particular creates a Batman not quite like any we've ever seen before, a little more cynical, a little more weary (although the branding of his captives to ensure they're killed in prison is comically overdone). Well-performed hogwash is still hogwash, though, and if this is what they're cooking up for the impending Justice League movies, count me out.

Christ. What a humorless, joyless slab of work. What levels of arrogance and pretension it takes to pretend this is thoughtful, then what a lack of vision and clarity to execute it so blandly. "BvS" will go down as one of the great missed opportunities in comic book movies, a baffling collection of nearly every possible wrong choice.

If I wanted these kinds of philosophical ramblings about good vs evil, I'd listen to a teenage employee at Hot Topic who just enrolled in a freshman seminar.

Monday, February 29, 2016

DEADPOOL - Come For The R Rating, Stay For The Heart (But Mostly The R Rating)

DEADPOOL (directed by Tim Miller, 2016)

  
Never say that "Deadpool" doesn't keep you on your toes. It's a surprise the movie got greenlit, a shock that it's not a disaster, and an ordained, gotdang miracle that it's actually pretty good. I walked in the theater with decidedly muted expectations. I walked out with the kind of grin earned by a movie's sheer force of will. Isn't it fun being won over by something that normally wouldn't even be on your radar?

Even a normally unbiased Magic 8 Ball would not be on this movie's side. Lets examine the ingredients. Ryan Reynolds in prime, abs-to-his-neck douchebag mode? Check. Cheeky, R-rated sense of humor that could easily mistake cursing for cleverness? Check. The hacky concept of superhero "deconstruction," as if making the antihero our protagonist qualifies as edgy? Double check.


And yet, what could have been a lame joke, laughed at by frat boys on a night of crushing it, becomes something more - something genuine and heartfelt - and I think that comes down to good old-fashioned spirit. The movie wants us to have a good time, and it doesn't carry the arrogant musk of thinking it's smarter than us, or that we're somehow dumb for caring. It's laughing with us, not at us.


The more superhero movies I watch, the more I become convinced of a simple truth: It's not the story they're telling, but who's telling it. Eventually you must accept that a studio investing this much money (and even the $58 million "Deadpool" budget is small potatoes compared to Marvel's big guns) will be averse to risk. You can push the audience, just return them to where they started. When you want to strike magic, you need a unique vision applied to this decidedly non-unique format.

Break down "Deadpool" and it's shockingly simple, even by origin story standards. We open in the middle of the movie, Deadpool the character (Reynolds) fully formed and outfitted, engaged in a fight with multiple baddies on a bridge. Through flashbacks and fourth wall breaking, we learn how he came to be, involving a terminal cancer diagnosis and mutant experimentation. Then his best girl Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is kidnapped. Then he faces the big bad in the customary climatic battle (although I appreciated its small scale and intimacy compared to the usual world-at-stake bluster). And that's it. That's the entire movie, basically three main sequences and flashbacks, all clocking in well under two hours.

One easy way to criticize "Deadpool," then, is to say it does nothing more than hang a new frame on an old painting, that it offers style as a consolation prize for a fairly pedestrian story. True enough, I guess, and do we really need any more origin stories? Instead I'd rather approach it from the opposite direction, that first time director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take a seemingly constricting tale and find a way to make it seem fresh.

The origin story isn't the destination. It's simply the vehicle for this one director and this one team of writers to unleash their vision.

As said, with the onslaught of superhero movies and superhero spin-offs and superhero worlds invading multiplexes these days, fewer approaches send my eyes rolling faster than "deconstruction." At a point, it feels necessary to bring a popular genre down a peg. Then arrogance sets in, the points become obvious, and it feels like being clever for clever's sake. The guy who still thinks he's cool because he doesn't watch TV and wants to tell you why.

"Deadpool" is a prime example of deconstruction done right. Instead of excessively mocking the genre, it gently pokes its ribs while at the same time reveling in playing in this sandbox. What little action sequences the movie has are pretty straightforward. The fun lies in the personality, the exuberance, the Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" swagger.

If Deadpool the character sarcastically breaks the fourth wall to essentially ask, "Can you believe we're doing this?", "Deadpool" the movie instead gleefully asks the audience, "Can you believe we get to do this?".

Aiding to no small effect is Ryan Reynolds in peak star mode. A great movie star is different than a great actor, but they both require the basic skill of knowing your lane, and after a string of career missteps, Reynolds finally realizes his potential as a star who knows what he does well and plays to it. Deadpool might be a wiseass and even flat out unlikable at times, but it's Reynolds who reigns him back when need be and unleashes him when need be.

An unabashed antihero with quips to spare, Deadpool could easily become insufferable - the grown man who still thinks Spencer's Gifts t-shirts are funny. Reynolds imbues him with the perfect cocktail of wit, smarminess, and a weird but genuine humanity. There has never been a more perfect role for his particular skill set, and he nails it.

Clever without being obnoxious, intelligent without being obvious, and brazenly adult without being shallow, "Deadpool" announces itself as a fresh new voice in superhero movies. A voice that knows its audience, speaks their language, and at the same time invites outsiders to the party.

If "Deadpool" were a presidential candidate, it'd be the answer to the cliche question of who you'd most like to join for a beer.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Unnerving THE WITCH Is A Slow Burn Until It Boils

THE WITCH (directed by Robert Eggers, 2016)


Seeing "The Witch" is like being suffocated in your sleep. You aren't fully aware of what's happening until you're gasping for breath. 

This isn't a horror movie that announces itself. There's no grandstanding. No jump scares. No easy moments of silence followed by the inevitable crashing piano chord. Instead, writer/director Robert Eggers lures you into his lair and subtly wraps his talons around you, creating a fully realized world precisely so he can bring it crashing down. Horror doesn't work simply because of tricks. It works because of the fundamentals. It works when it lays the groundwork of character and time and place. That's the difference between a cheap scare thanks to editing and a genuine scare thanks to investment.

For any genre movie to work, it must first and foremost respect its genre. And Eggers approaches horror like he's asking Don Corleone for a favor on the day of his daughter's wedding.

His trick is to build "The Witch" not as a horror, but as a psychological family drama. It's 1630s New England, and a family is excommunicated from a Puritan village for their extreme religious beliefs, which seems like tossing a Green Bay Packers fan out of the stadium for excessively painting his chest, but I'm no historian. After days of aimless travel, they settle upon a patch of land in the forest to build their own self-sustaining society. Months pass, and their crops are dying, their newborn son inexplicably goes missing during a game of peek-a-boo, and the family is methodically torn apart. Bad luck runs deep, so you know, witches, right?

To the movie's credit, and key to its success, that last assumption plays completely reasonable in context. Eggers cut his teeth as a production designer, and he doesn't simply show us this world, he plunges into it. The cramped rooms, the dim lighting, the dirty clothes, the religion. It all grows from scratch, from the opening frames onward. We learn and feel what it takes to survive in this place, in this time. We're participants, not witnesses. When the family theorizes that a witch must be the root of the unexplainable, it not only feels acceptable, but logical. 

Eggers keeps us further on our toes, though, by never going all in with this notion. His method recalls "The Shining" (not a small or baseless comparison) in its resistance until the final act to accept an otherworldly phenomenon. Despite its title, "The Witch" holds back as long as possible to confirm the titular figure, not only building the terror, but amping our suspicions. 

A lesser horror movie might take the easy route. Introduce a witch in the first act, terrorize the family in the second, watch them fight back in the third. Thankfully "The Witch" never met a convention it couldn't shatter. The family knows there's a witch out there. They feel it in their bones. But they can't confirm it, and as a result, they quickly turn on each other. Instead of being about a scary figure in the shadows, this structure brings the terror home, echoing "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" from "The Twilight Zone." By the time Eggers plants his feet in the ground and makes a choice about the reality of the witch, he doesn't create fear as much as heighten the fear already there.

In our hearts and our brains, we know witches aren't real, so we can't truly feel threatened by them. But the family you love and trust accusing you of witchcraft, and there's no escape for miles? There's some nightmare fuel for you. 

Throughout it all, from the quiet moments to the explosive ones, "The Witch" carries an ever-present and ever-growing dread. Not the dread of what's around the corner followed by a quick reward. No, it's that deep, unnerving, unsettling dread. The dread that claws at your core and that feels almost too personal and too visceral to watch, captured by Eggers in a compelling argument for digital photography. Film, by nature, might give an added richness and texture to this world. Eggers' digital lens, however, brings a coldness to even the brightest daylight hours. It's not inviting. It's harsh and flat, and in portraying a family terrorized by an unknowable force, we sure don't feel like home.

That tone and the ending payoffs make "The Witch" technically a horror movie, but it also raises the fundamental question of what is a horror movie? One key scene in the middle of the story finds the older son seemingly possessed by...something, be it a witch or mental illness, as he launches into a truly unsettling monologue, impeccably delivered by young actor Harvey Scrimshaw. Watching this moment, it's impossible not to be reminded of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," but Eggers stays just this side of the chaotic, never pushing too far, epitomizing the approach of "The Witch."

So what do we demand from our horror movies? Scares? Jumps? Just like we demand laughs from comedies? Those answers aren't necessarily wrong, but in requiring base reactions, it's not far removed from pornography. Make no mistake - if you let it, "The Witch" will scrape the skin from your spine. But it also argues for horror as a vehicle. A vehicle for ideas, a vehicle for character, a vehicle for story. 

Those final 15 minutes of "The Witch" reward your patience, but Eggers wants to take you on a journey before you arrive. Go in to a picture like this with the appropriate expectations and cherish the ride.

If nothing else, it gives us that damned black goat.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

THE REVENANT Is At Least Twice As Fun As A Bear Attack

THE REVENANT (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015)


Like one of those indoor skydiving places, "The Revenant" offers a visceral recreation of something without much satisfaction. The wind blows against your face and it certainly feels exciting, but there's nothing except a few feet of air below you and a comfortable walk to the parking lot.

That's your expectation checker. Now that it's out of the way, how many people really leave an indoor skydiving place disappointed? Movies are the most transportive artistic medium, and like Werner Herzog taking us down the river in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" or Alfonso Cuarón floating alongside Bullock and Clooney in "Gravity," "The Revenant" writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio create a stunning transference of feeling. We're there in the muck. Crawling through the snow. Scrounging for food and water. 

What's the golden rule of screenwriting - show, don't tell? "The Revenant" is all show and no tell. It's one of those movies like "Apocalypse Now" that's also an incredible chronicle of its own making, and when we return home, safely under our electric blanket and surrounded by four walls, we're not only grateful for what we have now, but feeling like we've experienced something we didn't understand before.

It's 1823, and Amazon Prime is years away. A group of trappers hunt for pelts in the Dakotas, still largely unsettled after the Louisiana Purchase. When Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a member of the group with unique knowledge of the terrain, ventures alone into the woods and is viciously mauled by a bear, his companions assume him to be at death's door and leave him with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, only slightly more understandable than in "The Dark Knight Rises) as they venture ahead, lest he die alone. Fitzgerald, never trusting or liking Glass in the first place, steals his supplies and abandons him, but not before murdering Glass' son. Despite the extreme wounds and no food or water or weapons, Glass manages to slowly crawl back to civilization, seeking justice.

If "The Revenant" has a major fault, maybe it's Iñárritu's. A man, near dead in the uncharted wilderness, literally crawls home inch by inch, and if he cares about surviving, it's only because he hasn't found his vengeance yet. There's a juicy pulp story buried here, beneath the grit and grime, but Iñárritu seems preoccupied with the grander capital letter themes of Man vs Nature, the Will To Survive, the Birth and Foundation of America. Even that would be tolerable if I felt a steady hand at the wheel. "The Revenant," however, clocks at a needlessly bulky 156 minutes, and there's only so many long takes of DiCaprio crawling through the snow we can take.

Too often throughout "The Revenant" I felt the movie slip away, clearing its throat and announcing its themes without delivering on any of them. It's an exercise in its own creation, and despite the majesty of this exercise, that's ultimately what it remains - emotionally stunted and underdeveloped.

Viewing the movie through this lens, though, maybe the fault is my own, respecting it while not loving it. Too often while watching movies that don't meet our exact hopes, we get too caught up in the hypotheticals. The director shoulda done this, the writer shoulda done that. We confuse choices with faults, and in judging a movie for what it's not, we don't always enjoy it for what it is.

So lets appreciate "The Revenant" for what it is -  an arduous, dizzying, and occasionally insane work of cinematography and acting, made by people steadfastly committed to the endgame and willing to see it through. If nothing else, even if Iñárritu directed a script written by and starring Tommy Wiseau, the movie is a visual stunner, capturing vistas rarely matched in the movies.

A more traditional filmmaker might indulge in panoramic wide shots, emphasizing landscapes. Iñárritu instead throws those in sporadically, creating with Emmanuel Lubezki the world we're inhabiting, then opts for mostly extreme close-ups. First the place is established, then we're thrown deep in the thick of it. There's no observation, no ease of distance. Whatever the characters are experiencing, we're there with them, sometimes no more than a few inches away. It's a jarring effect, but that's the difference between understanding a moment and feeling it in our bones.

If nothing else, "The Revenant" is a movie to feel deep in your core, and no small credit must be paid to DiCaprio. Truth be told, it's far from his most interesting work. "The Aviator" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street" both had more compelling, three dimensional characters, drawing on his skills as an actor in a complete way; Tom Hardy plays the juicier role here as Glass' adversary. If those movies were his best performances, though, "The Revenant" is his most performance. This is DiCaprio unhinged, primal and volatile, matted hair and chapped lips, hurling himself into the work with the passion of an artist who wants to take his audience somewhere new.

When he wins his now-inevitable Oscar, it will be for the onscreen experience more than the uniqueness of the performance. But you don't see Eddie Redmayne eating raw buffalo liver.

Ultimately "The Revenant" is a gorgeous, epic shaggy dog story, with not a whole lot to say but a real knack in saying it. It's a ravagement of the senses, a case for the widescreen theatrical experience, while sporting a single-take bear attack that makes you understand why Werner Herzog in "Grizzly Man" warned Timothy Treadwell's mother to never, ever listen to the audio of her son's death.

When a movie imposes a vision this powerful, sometimes you're allowed to not look beyond.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The STAR WARS Franchise Is Perfectly All Right Now, It's Fine, It's All Fine Now, Thank You...How Are You?

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
(directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015)


Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Buzzfeed offers countless listicles for toys we recognize if were grew up in whatever decade. Nickelodeon launched a late night TV block reviving its classic 80s/90s programming. Any Republican running for office is virtually required to win one for the Gipper. Nostalgia blinds our better judgement, bathes us in a warm pool of familiarity, and strokes our hair as it reassures us, "You're not mistaken - things really were better then."

It's a cynical tool, for sure, wielded by those hawking what they want us to buy. But in the right hands, it's also a noble one. Enter "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which preys on fans to a calculating degree, tweaking our impulses and desires and memories like it's scanning a car radio. And it's not only enjoyable, it's kind of inspiring.

I've always thought pop culture plays a crucial role in our lives, more than filling the silence before bedtime. Pop culture serves as a great uniting force, piercing through our veil of differences and giving strangers something to share in our dumb, random lives. Watching "The Force Awakens" with a sold out IMAX crowd at nearly one in the morning drove that home. As a movie - and ultimately that's what it is - the gears of the machine churn exposed. You can sense it laying franchise groundwork here. You can feel it hitting the obvious emotional buttons there. And yes, you can see it essentially remaking the original "Star Wars" all over the place.

But is that a problem? As noted by Matt Zoller Seitz, "The Force Awakens" is the movie writer/director J.J. Abrams was put on this planet to make, and sure enough, it's nimble and sure-footed, whip-fast and brazenly entertaining, modern yet boldly retro, with just the right amount of heart and brimming with confidence, announcing itself from the iconic opening title crawl as a movie that knows what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. Tapping into the power of nostalgia, it doesn't create a new world as much as it plugs new, dynamic characters into the one we fondly remember, and through that, Abrams makes an artistic statement that's both powerful and surprisingly personal. 

He does so by populating "The Force Awakens" with new characters consumed with looking back. Swaggering pilot for the Resistance - the good guys - Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) opens the movie on a quest for the map leading to now vanished Luke Skywalker. Villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), young leader in the First Order - the bad guys - models his look, attitude, and very existence on the legendary Darth Vader. Farmgirl Rey (Daisy Ridley) and stormtrooper-regretting-his-decisions Finn (John Boyega) know the legends of the original trilogy by heart. And then there's Han Solo (Harrison Ford having his most onscreen fun in ages) and Chewbacca returning to the series hunting for their treasured Millennium Falcon, which they lost years prior. 

Look. I get it. Abrams and Disney don't exactly reinvent the wheel in "The Force Awakens." At best, they're like the kid with an old-timey tire and a stick; if the tools aren't new, we still marvel at how well he's spinning it. George Lucas' original "Star Wars" felt radically fresh - throwing everything he loved about samurai pictures, westerns, Saturday morning serials, and California car culture in a blender - while the resulting mishmash served a structure as old as storytelling itself, the hero's journey. He used the new to reframe the old.

For "The Force Awakens," the old is the "Star Wars" series itself. Abrams wields these familiar tropes and beats of the series as a weapon, and without being too cleverly self-referential, he transports us to where we were in our lives when we first fell in love with these movies. Judging "The Force Awakens" for aping other "Star Wars" movies might be valid criticism as far as criticism goes, but that doesn't see the forest for the trees. The very soul of Abrams' script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is people chasing faded glory or people whose glory was never realized. People facing aging, failure, lack of purpose. People trying to atone for the past and people hoping there's something better on the other side.

Unlike the "Star Wars" prequels that became consumed with mythology, "The Force Awakens" cuts right to the core. And even when I didn't understand broader missions of the characters, I understood their specific motivations and why they're doing what they're doing now. Sometimes that's all you need from storytelling.

That's why Abrams' much ballyhooed return to (mostly) practical special effects is more than a stunt to draw cheers at ComicCon. Beyond a movie purist's love for the tangible, it signals the technical wizardry in service of an old-fashioned story, and not the other way around. Joy palpitates off the frame with the world "The Force Awakens" creates, and Abrams captures it not with the detached gaze of the prequels, but with a kind of boyish reverence. His camera moves and flows, but it remains steadily fluid, ensuring we soak in everything.

We're not held at arm's length by the cold technical prowess sometimes brought by modern special effects. We're invited to live here for a couple of hours.

"The Force Awakens" rarely zigs when it can zag. Truth be told, you can step out to check your online dating profile and comfortably guess what you missed. What it offers instead is whip-sure confidence. The dialogue crackles with wit and soul, allowing for unique, individual personas. The action sequences create clear stakes so we're invested in them when they arrive. The sets feel aged and lived in, like they existed before the movie started and will exist long after it's done. And it's a testament to the depth of the new characters that I'd pay to see a movie exclusively about them with nary a Han or Luke or Leia cameo in sight.

A little late to the party on this, I know, but "Star Wars" is back. I'm not talking the merchandising or the extended universes. I'm talking that fundamental feeling of seeing a movie you love and talking to others who say they love it too. That power of movies as a time machine, taking you not only to a galaxy far far away, but to that place where a great movie is all that matters.

"The Force Awakens" is what we talk about when we talk about blockbusters.
 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

TOMORROWLAND Crashes Like A Faulty Jet Pack

TOMORROWLAND (directed by Brad Bird, 2015)


How much you enjoy "Tomorrowland" largely boils down to how much you're willing to lie to yourself.

Here is a movie I'm desperate to like, I'm practically dying to like. Director/co-writer Brad Bird (of "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant" fame) has yet to inflict cinematic wrong, and with his latest, he attempts no less than to conjure classic live-action Disney magic of the past, where the movie screen feels like a doorway, beckoning us to a more extraordinary version of ourselves and our world. "Tomorrowland" proudly slaps its heart on its sleeve, then asks us why we aren't doing the same.

And yet...and yet. Do we support a movie for what it's trying to do, or for what it ultimately does? I want to live in a world where "Tomorrowland" kickstarts a new wide-eyed, original franchise. I want to live in a world where it imbues us with that feeling of hope and optimism it so clearly wishes, where kids exit the theater keen on becoming scientists and artists and inventors and thinkers. Sometimes life demands painful admissions we'd rather deny, though, and here's one of them: "Tomorrowland" fails. I support its intent and its spirit and its message with every fiber of my blogger being, but at a point, we must remove the goggles and face the world we've got to live in. Bird stands on the mountaintop and preaches the gospel of wonder. What a damn shame his movie curiously lacks it. 

I take no pleasure in this.

Chief among the movie's faults is the most elemental one of structure. As the movie starts, we meet young inventor Frank Walker in 1964, hitching a bus to the New York World's Fair to show off his new jet pack. Although he fails to impress judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie), he is invited on a ominous fair ride that launches him on a secret tunnel to Tomorrowland, a futuristic, seemingly otherworldly city where anything is possible and dreaming is encouraged. Flash forward to today, where cynicism abounds and a young, idealistic girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) starts having visions of the city, and only an adult Frank (now played by George Clooney), who was mysteriously exiled from Tomorrowland, can take her there. 

As reasonable a pitch for a movie as any. But you don't spend all day cranking a Jack In The Box only to learn there's nothing inside - there are basic rules of pacing and payoff. You set up a world, introduce the players, create the stakes, and take us to the finish line. For a movie clocking in at two solid hours before credits, "Tomorrowland" feels oddly stuck in Act 1, constantly feeding us table scraps of information that only mildly tantalize the story's true scope, creating unreasonable anticipation for where we're heading, until arriving at a bizarrely rushed conclusion.

It's not that "Tomorrowland"'s ultimate destination - that of a basic end-of-the-world scenario - is disappointing (though it is). It's the blatant tease of it all. What we have here is a fundamentally obvious story marred by the promise of something grand, an almost bizarre experiment in how much of a feature length movie you can create using set-up. "Tomorrowland" pulls back curtains only to reveal more curtains.

All the more tragic is what "Tomorrowland" clearly could have been. From the deepest recesses of the celluloid, you can almost hear a passionate work of art screaming to be set free, everything good and noble about Bird as a filmmaker and a storyteller swallowed up in the quicksand of the studio machine. Consider the movie's ultimate message, that our world on the verge of extinction can be saved not through bombs or bullets or domination, but through sheer hope - the unlocking of our best selves. That's a brazenly personal note of optimism to strike when most summer movies climax with buildings crumbling and people fleeing, and it requires a healthy dose of awe to land. 

"Tomorrowland" has no awe. It has no wonder. Where it should have us saying, "Wow," we can only say, "Huh?" Remember the fist pumping passion of Bird's "The Iron Giant" as the machine proclaims, "I am not a gun!"? Or the lovely little aside in "The Incredibles" as Dash, finally given permission to run as fast as he can, chuckles with joy as he races across water? Moments like that make Bird such a vital voice of optimism in film, a masterful weaver of story, character, and action able to strike the exact emotions he wants, when he wants.

This is the first movie in his repertoire where you can see the wheels spinning, where the movie tells us what to think instead of making us think it. If "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" (and his other Pixar effort, "Ratatouille") felt like genuine, complete encapsulations of hope and possibility, "Tomorrowland" is a corporate seminar on the stuff.

Instead of a whole movie, we just have threads of a movie, many left awkwardly dangling. Who sent the characters played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn to capture Casey, and why? How did Tomorrowland crumble into the destitute wasteland it is today? Why did Hugh Laurie's character stick around? And the main draw of the movie, Tomorrowland itself, comes explored frustratingly little in the first two thirds, so when we see its ruins in the end, we have no sense of enchantment to compare to the tragic rubble. 

You can feel the material getting the better of Bird, played with the same awkward, self-serving corporate synergy of Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks" that lacks an intelligent drawing together of its themes. He is absolutely a great filmmaker, and will absolutely be great again. Sometimes earnestness just can't overcome obliqueness.

To paraphrase Cosmo Kramer's take on an unpublished manuscript, it's a story about love, deception, greed, and unbridled enthusiasm - that's what led to the movie's downfall. You see, "Tomorrowland" was a simple country movie, some might say a cockeyed optimist, that got itself mixed up in the high stakes game of Disney sponsorship and artistic passion projects.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Surges Like A Bullet Filled With Caffeine Shot From A Volcano

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (directed by George Miller, 2015)


Reviewing "Mad Max: Fury Road" presents me with two problems. 1) How can I possibly describe a movie this gloriously gonzo, this triumphant, while using words that sound coherent? 2) How can I resist the urge to write those words in all caps?

Here is a movie that not only inspires hyperbole, it demands hyperbole, that breathless stream of adjectives and adverbs in the lobby sounding like rubbish to everyone but the initiated. Its very essence is a cinematic hyperbole. Got a point to make and a movie to make it with? Why go small when you can go big? Why go timid when you can go ecstatic? Why go subtle when you can go insane?

Why go great when you can go greatest? 

That's precisely what George Miller did, returning to the franchise's director chair for the first time since 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." It truly feels like, at some point down the road, he asked the simple question, "You know what the action genre could use? A new benchmark." And now we have "Fury Road," setting the bar at a height that even CGI can't create, an incredible cacophony of sound, image, and idea, all coming together for a sweaty rush of pure cinema.

Decades from now, when fresh young filmmakers discuss what inspired them to make movies of their own, this is what they'll point to.

Stripped to the frame and ready to rumble, Miller streamlines his movie with remarkable precision, telling us exactly what we need to know when we need to know it and showing us the rest. Set unknown years after "Beyond Thunderdome," Max (Tom Hardy, replacing a certain sugar tits enthusiast) continues to wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland, no goal in mind except pure survival. Immediately in the opening frames, he's captured by the War Boys, members of a tyrannical cult led by Immortan Joe, who use him to pipe blood to the veins of tumor-infested soldier Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives the armored War Rig to ostensibly collect gasoline for the city, Joe learns she's kidnapped his beloved Five Wives, women used expressly for breeding, and taking them to freedom, causing the War Boy army to chase her down with Max strapped along for the ride.

As a plot, it's pure allegory. Here's the good guys, here's the bad guys, and off we go, rarely letting up for a break. As a cinematic experience, though, it's unparalleled, short of you mixing mushrooms, cough syrup, and Drano until stuff just started happening. Movies, both the good and the bad, can often be any one thing. Maybe the movie wants to be a storytelling device. Maybe a visual experience. Maybe it's a genre like comedy or horror, built to elicit a specific emotion. But sometimes, sometimes a movie can be all the things. 

If "Fury Road" were just the visual extravaganza it is, you'd absolutely be demanded on opening weekend. If it were a mere collection of car chases, you'd still see it at least twice. George Miller, though, makes no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood. "Fury Road" is ultimately the kind of avant garde blockbuster rarely seen before and likely rarely seen again. Ultra-commercial while achingly personal. Relentlessly entertaining while emotionally resonant. R-rated action spectacle and a wounded cry from the heart.

Beneath the eye-popping dazzles and intensely realized dystopian imagery, "Fury Road" covertly delivers a feminist rally cry, all the more remarkable for how seamlessly it's fused. One of the most hollow ways to describe female characters is "strong," because really, what does that even mean? That she's literally muscled? That she's courageous? That she kills the most bad guys? In Furiosa, Theron creates a female action heroine for the ages that comfortably stands alongside Sigourney Weaver's Ripley precisely for those reasons and precisely in spite of them. She's vulnerable. She worries. She's unsure. When she rescues the wives from Immortan Joe, though, it's on her own accord, breaking free from a quite literal patriarchy and harnessing her own agency. Max assists them along the way, but he's not the magic male ingredient that lights the fire. He's an ally who stands beside Furiosa as her equal. 

Still, don't consider "Fury Road" an agenda movie. Miller might have things on his mind, but why force it into your mind when he can invite you into his? During the precious bits of downtime, he doesn't reduce Furiosa and Max to speechifying (each of them maybe gets a couple of hundred words throughout the movie). Instead, he allows his themes to breathe and play out through sheer action, never clubbing you with them, but keeping them lurking just beneath the surface. 

When theorists refer to "pure cinema," this is what they mean. "Fury Road" rules as a remarkable fusion of idea and skill.

And what skill! What audacious, bone-crushing skill! George Miller is a 70-year-old man. Ordinarily that wouldn't rank high among important facts, but just consider where most 70-year-olds' heads lie. Maybe they're content with their life, maybe they're filled with regret, but either way, their legacy is probably set. When you watch "Fury Road," don't forget who made it, because it radiates the passion of a hungry young artist with something to prove. 

Miller approaches the concept of "more" not as a challenge, not as a question, but as an expectation. Of course he has to give us more. Of course each scene has to top itself. Of course each moment has to top itself. This is just the kind of movie he feels compelled to make, and as "Fury Road" hurtles forward, we feel exhausted, but not overwhelmed. Stuff happens in this movie. My god, stuff happens in this movie. Cars flip and crash into other cars. Stunt people vault around on poles. A man strapped to the front of a tanker plays electric flame-shooting guitar because wouldn't you want your chase to have its own live soundtrack? Insane levels of visual detail fill the frame and decorate the fringes. And yet, for a movie with more than 2,000 cuts, we never feel lost, grounded by Miller at all times with a keen sense of geography and physicality. 

Forgoing CGI and green screens in favor of practical effects and stunt work, "Fury Road" ramps up the stakes higher than most lesser action films because the stakes feel higher. When we can see what's happening and we know what's happening and we believe what's happening, that's when our knees start jiggling and our posture leans forward and a little grin sprouts, first of awe and then of joy. That's when movie magic goes down.

Money in the movies can be a heckuva tool or a heckuva crutch. "Fury Road," budgeted at $150 million, exceeds the other "Mad Max" movies by a wide gulf, and yet Miller uses that cash at his disposal to make things harder on himself, to expand his artistic vision accordingly and then heave his vast balls forward to achieve it. Consider this his plea to the filmmaking world, throwing down the gauntlet so hard it shakes the earth's core, hoping he inspires other action filmmakers that this is how much fun we can be, this is how awesome we can be, this is how essential we can be. 

Please, please see it in theaters. Not a pirated bootleg, not streaming, not a DVD. Not on your television, not on your tablet, not on your phone. Make it tower above you and around you, and if your theater offers it on multiple screens, call ahead to ask which is the biggest.

"Fury Road" deserves it, and so do you.