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Monthly Archives: June 2013

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Ten Word or Less Review : Best trilogy ever, that doesn’t involve lasers.

I know you won’t believe me but Man of Steel and Before Midnight have very similar endings.  The movie with the guy in the red cape culminates with Supes and Zod knocking the shit out of each other for about half an hour until every building in their path has been flattened.  This movie with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy culminates with the two of them knocking down the walls of their relationship until the house that is their marriage has been nearly destroyed.  The movie with the married couple in a hotel room proves to be far more effective in its portrayal of destruction than the movie with all the buildings falling down.

For those of you who haven’t kept up, Before Midnight marks our third visit into the relationship of American writer Jesse and French activist Celine.  The two met for one amazing night in Vienna 18 years ago.  The first movie, Before Sunrise, quietly achieved one of the great cliffhanger endings of movie history.  After their evening together ends Jesse leaves to go back to America with a promise to return to the same train station in 6 months.  The answer to their romantic question mark didn’t materialize until 9 years later in Before Sunset.  That movie caught us up with two people who had tried with all their might to live and move on and forget each other but despite only one night together and 9 years apart, they immediately fell back into the same repour that pulled them together so long ago.  This second story resonated with emotionally lost opportunities and the first pangs of genuine adult regret.  And just like the first time we were left with a teasing cliffhanger and once again we’ve had to wait 9 years to find out what happened.  Some thought Nina Simone would simply linger in the background forever.

Well, marriage and a set of twins happened.  Before Midnight brings us back to Celine and Jesse during the final days of an extended Greek vacation.  The movie starts with Jesse is saying goodbye to his son Hank who is going back to America after a summer with Dad.  Jesse is riddled with parental remorse at not being a larger part of Hank’s life.  After one too many crusader setbacks Celine is considering a major career overhaul and is afraid Jesse is trying to relocate the family to America through passive aggressive suggestion so that he can be close to Hank.  Though no fireworks start shooting off in the beginning the groundwork for conflict is being laid.  The rest of the afternoon plays out with a friendly dinner among fine friends and conversation and then Before Midnight returns us to the easy give and take that made us like these people 18 years ago.  “How long as it been since we just bullshited?”  It’s a throw away line from Hawke that says so much about the state of their relationship as the two slowly stroll off to a hotel for the evening.

When the two of them settle in for a romantic night away from kids, the situation quickly spirals into an argument of epic proportions in which the nature of their relationship isn’t so much dissected as ravenously torn apart and the audience is left dazed in the wake of their conflict.  Has Jesse become indifferent to Celine?  Is he taking advantage of her?  Does he really want to move to America and wreck the marriage the two have built?  Do they love each other anymore?  Has the monotony and routine of married existence eroded their relationship down to the nub?  It’s the kind of knockdown, drag out battle between people that leaves the audience aghast and devastated.  So much so because we’ve spent years contemplating these characters and building them in our minds that to see them turn things into an ugly, bare knuckle brawl is almost hurtful.  It’s a fearless, dangerous and honest place to take a story which to date has felt otherwise emotionally pleasing.

Midnight and it’s precursors stand as an example of unique creative chemistry between its stars and director, Richard Linklater.  Linklater has helmed all three movies with the screenplay for the last two being written by himself and stars Delpy and Hawke.  This kind of creative union has yielded commendable results.  Who better to write for these characters than the actors playing them?  Each film stands as a small statement to the age of not only the characters but the audience watching them.  The three movies are also a fine example of the visually less is more aesthetic.  There probably aren’t more than 50 camera setups between all three movies but each time Linklater gets more emotional traction from his performers than the last.  In a cinematic world obsessed with billion dollar trilogies and series of films which never end Linklater’s no budget trilogy can claim to be one of the more unique cinematic accomplishments of the last two decades.

Before Midnight doesn’t leave us dangling on a cliffhanger this time so much as imply a tectonic shift has occurred between the couple.  Where these characters go from here will once again be a matter of audience debate and speculation.   To not revisit them again in nine years would seem like someone vital not showing up for a family reunion.  Celine and Jesse will be 50 then.  Entrenched in middle age.  Their kids will have grown up.  I think there’s a chance they are no longer married.  Maybe health will have started to become an issue for one of them.  Will the story be set during a funeral?  A wedding?  Something as simple as dinner.  Who’s to know?  In no instance during this series of films were the outcomes predictable or foretold and I find that thought endlessly refreshing.  See you in 9 years guys.  You better show up.

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Ten Word or Less Review – It certainly does suck.

I was only 3 when The Black Hole came out and I can only guess at why I didn’t grow up watching it at least in 10 or 15 times when I was a kid.  It was Disney, it was science fiction, I should have had the movie memorized by the time I was 9.  Well thank God that didn’t happen.  I’ve managed to scrub away more than a few lousy movies from my childhood memory and The Black Hole would certainly be something to make a point to forget about as quickly as possible once adolescence faded from view.  Maybe I did watch it as a kid and even then could tell what a lump of movie it was.

It was 1979 and every major studio had Star Wars fever on the brain.  They still do.  The age of the Star Wars knock off was about to go full tilt boogie and a struggling Disney studio stepped up with this massive $20 million production.  The Black Hole promised deep space adventure with floating robots, laser guns, monolithic spaceships, more robots with more laser guns, and then another robot equipped with two deadly veg-o-matics for arms as well as laser guns.  That’s a big promise.  What wound up on the screen was a turgid science fiction effort executed with all the pizzazz and excitement of an Amish funeral.  It’s a dull and laborsome movie which tries to marry the heady science fiction cinema of the era with the whiz bang factor audiences were looking for in the wake of experiencing lightsabers and Death Stars.  It winds up doing both types of film horribly wrong.

At the time of its release Black Hole’s languid pacing was probably less of the crippling issue that it is now.  The first Star Trek movie came out the same year and while equally slow paced it was much more successful.  Hole sports extremely ambitious special effects utilizing advanced motion capture model techniques, scores of matte paintings and impressive miniature work.  On the big screens of yesteryear it probably all felt epic and novel enough to not warrant too much fuss.  But no amount of visual pompousness could disguise the rickety screenplay which feels like a half-baked first draft someone rushed through the typewriter to make a deadline.  Characters and their motivations are at best poorly thought out and at worst totally senseless.  And director Gary Nelson, called up from the minor leagues of TV work to helm the most expensive movie Disney had made to date, shows no skill for visual showmanship.  Disney may have made it a point to liberally rip off Star Wars in certain places but they siphoned off none of the excitement.

Disney used its struggling coffers to assemble a mostly decent and capable cast of solid actors but subsequently had them do little but walk around large sets next to floating R2-D2s.  Robert Forester, Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine shuffle through trying not to be upstaged by all the floating robots but they have no help from anything on the page.  Forester plays commanding and dull.  Perkins and Borgnine are great actors but they can’t wad through this flaccid spectacle with any rhythm.  Their characters make stupid decisions in order for the plot to move forward and one can’t help but feel happy for Perkins when he pointlessly meets his demise via the evil robot’s veg-o-matic appendage.  Lucky bastard got to go home before everyone else.  The forgotten Joseph Bottoms just plain sucks.  Some producer makes him yelp a Han Solo inspired ‘yee ha!’ as he saves his chums from robot doom.  Yvette Mimieux has nothing to do but communicate, via ESP, with floating robot VINCENT, the extremely blatant R2-D2 ripoff.  Don’t get me started on how ESP between a robot and a human is supposed to work.

Maximilian Schell gets to preen and speechify as best he can in mad scientist mode but as the movie slowly gives way to special effects and laser fights his character becomes dumb and then dumber.  The movie is so dramatically misguided that it doesn’t even give one of our diligent space heroes a chance to smack him around.  He’s crushed by his stadium sized flatscreen TV and then as his ship falls into the black hole he winds up in his own personal Hell.  His final fate is the one part of the movie which feels a little creepy and of the time.  I’m sure a few kids felt sufficiently freaked out as they watched his nefarious scientist become entombed in his own evil robot, forced to overlook his personal Hell within the black hole.  It’s as if Ken Russell or John Boreman showed up to direct things for one day and then bolted when they realized the rest of the film was a dud.

There’s not a lot of nostalgia out there for The Black Hole, but apparently there’s just enough that Disney wants to remake it and enough to make me feel odd about never having seeing it.  This is actually one case where a remake is fine by me.  You couldn’t do much worse but I’m sure someone will try.  With Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) on tap to make it I have a feeling that should it materialize the audience will once again find itself drawn into a big, dumb movie that emulates its title by sucking everything around it into lifeless void and squashing it out of existence.  Isn’t that something to look forward to?

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1956_JUBALJubal (1956) – Great western featuring Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger.  Steiger in particular lassos the movie and makes it his own as a manipulative cattlehand out to undermine Ford’s straitlaced and righteous hero.  His line about bringing the loose, unscrupulous wife of Borgnine his wood had me in stitches.   Though it’s very much it’s own movie time looks to have put it aside because of it’s similarities with undisputed western classic Shane, which came out three years before.  Criterion has seen fit to unbury it and show it off in a fine transfer.  Classic western fans should seek out.

 

 

 

bigwedBig Wednesday (1978) – John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) follows in the footsteps of buddy George Lucas and tries to make his own American Graffiti styled young adult drama.  Set against the big waves of southern California three friends (Gary Busey, William Katt and Jan-Michael Vincent) deal with the generational changes of the 60’s and 70’s.  Some go to Vietnam, some dodge, others fall into a bottle.  The love for the time and place is palpable, the cinematography is spot on and the surfing footage is great.  Sadly, Milius’ screenplay lacks the strong character the story really needs and as an overall work of drama it’s kind of tepid.  Still, if you can’t get enough surfing in your life, or you want to appreciate Point Break on a whole new level, check it out.  Watch it and learn that Gary Busey never played another role again.

 

basketball_diariesBasketball Diaries (1995) – One of the films that helped put future superstar DiCaprio on the acting map.  Diaries is an adaptation of Jim Carroll’s seminal work of the same name.  It documents his ball playing days in high school and two bit hooliganism he gets into with his Brooklyn buddies.  As high school winds down he falls into hard drugs, squalor and petty crime.  His poetry saves him.  It’s not bad at all but it’s wears the cloak of 90’s indie cinema heavy and much of the drug abuse drama stylings have since been surpassed by superior films.  If your a DiCaprio devotee and want to see his first steps into great performances, this is a good starting point.  Also showed the world that Mark Wahlberg might be more than a hokey, white raper wearing his pants around his knees.

 

 

ozgreatOz: The Great and Powerful (2013) – Mediocre and dull is more like it.  A thin script, a miscast lead actor and a cavalcade of special effects make up this piece of ‘family’ entertainment.  Director Sam Raimi is in neutered and neutral mode all the way.  He peppers a few of his signature cinematic quirks about the place but in the end it’s still depressing to see a master of schlock and mayhem peddle this kind of tepid family movie nonsense.  Someone force him make a $7 million dollar horror movie.  Please.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Supermeh

The last son of Krypton’s lumpy movie resume adds another uneven chapter to its long running tradition of troubled and cumbersome films.  One would figure that there is enough of a cinematic road map for Superman to follow so as to avoid any further missteps but that’s not the case.  Between all the comic book success stories (Batman) and failures (Ghost Rider) of the last decade and a half, and his own recent misbegotten film to boot (2006’s Superman Returns), a top notch Superman film should be a no-brainer by now.  But no.  Once again Superman has proven to be a character just out of reach of Hollywood storytellers.  Man of Steel careens wildly from meditative character study to excessive slugfest and by the time it’s finished it has squashed the audience in between.

At this point in the history of comic book flicks sitting through yet another origin story of a guy who wears spandex makes me queasy.  And covering Superman’s origin story?  Again?  For an encore is Warner Brothers gonna walk me through Bruce Wayne becoming Batman?  I think there are a few people in the slums of Calcutta who don’t know how that happens.  But divisive director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) builds and shapes the first hour of Man of Steel for all its worth and then some.  An extended intro with Superman’s real dad Kal-El (Russel Crowe) flying around Krypton on his trusty winged, lizard creature while the nefarious General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military coup kicks things off with a showstopper.  It immediately sets itself apart from Supermans of the past with its fearless fantasy movie costumes and larger than life scope.  The producers look to be out to out Marvel Marvel in this respect.  Then in a real shock to the system, after Krypton goes kaboom, there’s a smooth transition to a more subdued and contemplative tone which leads us into the lost years of Clark Kent.

It’s this origins part of the movie works far better than anyone could have anticipated.  Watching Clark flashback to the formation of his abilities gives the film a variety of dramatic beats and interesting moments.  It’s has touching interactions between young Clark and his adoptive Earth parents, the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).  A scene with an elementary school age Clark gets really freaky as the young kid suddenly discovers he can’t control a new found ability to see through people.  Later he rescues a bus full of kids much to Pa Kent’s worry.  Costner’s father figure thinks the revelation of his adopted son’s abilities will turn the world on its head.  Costner and Lane give some skill to roles traditionally under used and quickly swept away.  I’m still holding a grudge against Superman Returns for wasting Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent.  But making Diane Lane look like an old farm wife is cruel in it’s own way.  Regardless, most of this youth oriented material works like a charm until Costner’s melodramatic and poorly thought out demise.  Aside from that misstep, Man of Steel looks to building up towards something genuinely special.  Superman’s first flight is exhilarating and after building so much promise you’re ready for Man of Steel to truly take off and fly.  But then just like that first flight Man of Steel, like Superman himself, crashes hard.

The second half of the film is where Steel’s story goes awry.  Director Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer revert back to comic book movie 101 so fast it makes your head pop.  Shannon’s General Zod escapes his Phantom Zone prison and comes to Earth looking for Jor El and the secret to rebuilding Krypton, on top of Earth no less.  I think the Decepticons had this same idea a few years ago.  After some very boring comings and goings that stop the movie dead, army guys are always instant boredom in films like this, Steel morphs into a super budget version of WWF Smackdown.  Superman endlessly trades punches with Zod and his costume clad cronies who look like the roided up, super-soldiers from the first G.I. Joe movie.

Snyder has made a reputation of sorts for himself over recent years.  A mongoloid with a paint brush seems like an apt description.  By marrying his voluptuous and ornate visual skills with an attitude that at its best is too aggressive (Watchmen) and worst, barbaric and dumb (Sucker Punch), he’s good at dividing audiences or alienating them outright.  Man of Steel’s previews implied that he had upped his game and abandoned the more fetishistic and overblown type of movie he usually clubs an audience to death with.  But the surprisingly graceful and mature nature of the movie slowly ebbs away and we’re left with a tiresome final hour of witless bombast an mindless destruction.  It’s like that scene from Superman III where Superman fights himself.  Except here the new Snyder is choked out of existence while the old one takes over and decidedly ruins things.

Snyder and his team of technicians seem to think the act of watching Superman punch people is all the audience wants to see.  A response to Superman Returns endless parade of Superman lifting things?  This obsession with super fighting culminates with Zod and Superman launching into fisticuffs in the middle of Metropolis.  The destruction of one building after another ensues as they toss and slug each other to kingdom come.  Which in itself comes on top of watching scores of buildings, cars and people be mercilessly flattened by Zod’s massive gravity machine.  Superman may be trying to save Metropolis from these villains but I’m pretty sure he inadvertently kills hundreds, if not thousands, of people in this clash of the titans.  Of course none of that is addressed.  By the time the mayhem has subsided Man of Steel has pancaked itself like a semi truck driving into a brick wall doing 90.  There’s nothing left but steaming wreckage and dazed audience wondering what the Hell happened.

Despite the half good/crap half construction of Man of Steel it doesn’t want for capable players.  Holding this mash up of two movies together is new Superman Henry Cavill.  The British actor gets the unenviable task of trying to hold up this massive narrative on his very broad shoulders.  Though the screenplay plays him shy and quiet at first, he eventually opens up and seems like the right man for the job.  He has more presence and gravitas than last Superguy Brandon Routh.  Despite the clear indicators that he’s on track to be a more than capable Superman he’s stuck in a poor situation that no actor could save.  New Lois Lane Amy Adams also feels like a good fit undermined by slipshod writing.  Adams is as skilled an actress as any but her Lois is an ill fit for the story.  You could practically edit her out of the movie and never miss her.  Michael Shannon is the best heavy working in Hollywood today but his Zod is one dimensional menace in an unflattering haircut.  He’s tries his absolute damnedest to eat the film right out of the camera but there’s precious little for him to play other than searingly mad and pissed off.   Russell Crowe is stuck with the most portentous dialogue of anybody and he makes it work despite the leaden, overly ponderous words he’s stuck with.  It’s a testament to his abilities and it makes one wonder what would have happened had Crowe nabbed the role of Kal-El when he was a more youthful gent.

Man of Steel is sadly another ambitious but misbegotten Superman film.  It fearlessly cast aside some of the more long standing, and annoying, traditions of the Superman myth.  Lois Lane (Amy Adams) quickly determines that Supes is in fact Clark Kent.  We’re spared the dumb tradition of her not knowing the two are the same.  Annoyingly earnest Jimmy Olsen is also nowhere to be seen.  Composer Hans Zimmer supplies a rousing film score which works as a better than adequate replacement for John Williams iconic music cues.   But for every unconventional decision made a senseless one lies in its wake.  Why build a backstory in about Superman being the first natural Kryptonian birth with the freedom to choose who he will be in life when we all know he’s going to be Superman?  Even his dead Dad knows what he’s going to be.  And he’s dead.  He has a costume ready made for him the day he starts to fly around!  How is that a choice?  In what world would Clark actually consider staying a bum who works shitty jobs?  It’s daft writing in the extreme.  There are pieces here to craft a worthwhile Superman movie series and despite the misgivings about this mess I hope another, better experience rises from the wreckage of this first effort.  Superman deserves a genuinely grand cinematic experience.  Maybe next time he’ll get to do something more than slug someone in the face while building come crashing down around his ankles.

 

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