Friday, September 19, 2014

Django Unchained

Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy set in the pre-Civil War American South. It doesn't have any vampires.

It heroes are Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, neither of whom slay vampires. Its villains include Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, and Bruce Dern, none of whom are vampires. Its Designated Damsel is Kerry Washington, who does not kill a slaveholding vampire with a silver crucifix shot from a Spencer 1860 carbine.

In short, Django Unchained is a slavery revenge fantasy that is not Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter. This is too bad. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a great movie, while Django Unchained is merely good. While AHVH is fun and creative and downright wicked in its portrayal of the Slaveholding South as an undead empire and Jefferson Davis as its knowing stooge, Django goes the more obvious route of painting its villains simply as venal, stupid, cruel, or some combination of the three.


The result? A perfectly serviceable revenge fantasy populated with world-class actors, aided by Quentin Tarantino's dialogue and unique eye, and made with every bit of goodwill all hands could muster. I chuckled. I grooved. I was entertained. But it was no AbrahamLincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

I saw Kick-Ass 2 a couple of weeks ago. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. The film's tone shifts so often, sometimes within a scene, that it kept me off balance for nearly its entire running time. Sometimes, it's a comedy. Sometimes, it's an action adventure. Sometimes, it's a gruesome and tragic horror show.

Here's the setup: it's a year or two after the events of the original Kick-Ass (which I quite liked.  See my review at the link). Our hero has hung up his costume, and second (but more interesting) lead Hit Girl has done the same. But it's boring in the real world, and someone's gotta take on evildoers. Soon enough, our leads are back in harness: and just in time. Evil has a plan.


With a setup like that, a film can go anywhere. Kick-Ass 2 goes everywhere. It's an adolescent comedy, a superhero teamup movie, and a horror movie all at the same time. Do you like vomit gags? Kick-Ass 2 has 'em. Do you like that shot in which the team walks, slo-mo, abreast toward the camera? Oh, yeah. How are you with graphic torture and murder? Sexual assault? An underage girl using a pair of pliers to rip off a man's penis? Yeah, me neither.

The film has another strange feature: its title character isn't particularly interesting. Aaron-Taylor Johnson plays Dave Lizewski (aka Kick-Ass) as a bland nobody, someone who comes fully alive only when in costume. While Lizewski (who made a fine lead in Godzilla) does the job, he has a real handicap: he's cast opposite Chloë Grace Moretz, who's a genuine movie star. Not only does she have the more interesting character (a 9th-grader so damaged that she's only happy when killing), but she's a better actor; she brings a maturity and sophistication to her performance that reminds me of a young Jodie Foster.


So, toss together a number of dissonant elements, put your best performer in a supporting role, and bake until strange. If that sounds like a good recipe to you, you just might enjoy Kick-Ass 2.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

R.I.P.D.

I liked Men in Black. I liked Ghostbusters. I like Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, and Kevin Bacon. R.I.P.D. is a mashup up of Ghostbusters and Men in Black starring Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, and Kevin Bacon. All the movie had to do to get me on its side was not screw up.

R.I.P.D. did not screw up.

Here's the setup: Ryan Reynolds, a Boston cop of questionable moral character, gets killed and assigned to the Police Department of the Dead. A rookie on this new force, he gets partnered with Western lawman Jeff Bridges (riffing on his True Grit character) and is off to save the world.

From there, it's one gag after another as the two cops face off against a panoply of poorly-rendered CGI undead monsters. Wait – don't go away. The poor rendering is a feature, not a bug. This is a lighthearted comedy-horror-action picture, and the monsters' artificiality creates sufficient distance to keep them more amusing than scary. I smiled, I chuckled, I nodded along happily as I watched people I like fight neat monsters in a movie that entertained me from beginning to end.


All this, and James Hong to boot. What more could you ask for in your light summer entertainment?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Argo

Argo is funny and gripping and altogether successful.

Ben Affleck directed and starred in the thriller, a (reasonably) true story about the spiriting of six American diplomats out of Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution.  It seems like the man hasn't taken a misstep since Hollywoodland, and his is becoming a name I increasingly associate with quality filmmaking.  With Argo, he assembles a top-notch cast and production team, hands them a solid screenplay, and polishes their work with the collaboration of editor William Goldenberg.

But wait - how can a movie about getting six Americans out of Iran be funny?  It's all in the writing.  While Argo is a thriller first, Screenwriter Chris Terrio wrote snappy, sharp dialogue for its Hollywood-based characters.  A cast including Alan Arkin and John Goodman bring that dialogue to life, and Affleck and editor Goldenberg make it pop with perfectly arranged compositions, perfectly timed reaction shots, and a sense of momentum that allows levity while keeping the audience keyed in on the seriousness of the situation [Side note: Goldenberg won the 2013 Academy Award for editing for his work on Argo.  Learning stuff like that while conducting basic research is part of the fun of writing this blog.].

That editing is also what makes the movie gripping.  How do you make watching a phone ring interesting?  By cutting footage of a lonesome phone in an empty room with footage of the man making the call, of the men racing to answer to the call, and the people whose lives depend on the outcome of that call.  Argo is filled with this kind of stuff, taking the mundane aspects of the operation at hand and lending them urgency through top-notch editing.

In short, Argo is a testament to the value of craft, to polishing a script and casting the right people and getting the hair and makeup just so and editing the footage with a perfect blade.  The result?  Another winner for Ben Affleck.  May he bring us many more.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pain & Gain

I've never been a fan of Michael Bay's movies, but I've never thought of him as a bad person.

Until now.

Pain and Gain is a bad movie made by a bad person who operates under the assumption that his audience is full of bad people who enjoy laughing at other bad people.

Pain and Gain is a bad movie because it's a thuddingly unfunny comedy. Not one funny thing happens during its entire run time, and I didn't so much as grin from the opening credits to the close. Pain and Gain was made by a bad person because only a bad person thinks that a true story of kidnapping, torture, and multiple murder can be played for laughs. This bad person assumes that his audience is full of bad people because it is, simply, wrong to laugh at stupid people for being stupid: they can't help it.

Here's the story: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie are stupid bodybuilders who, motivated by a stupid get-rich-quick schemer, go in on a stupid plan to kidnap and torture a rich guy until he gives them his money.

Yes, there's some commentary on materialism and confusion between wealth and happiness, but it's slight. Mostly, the film serves as an opportunity for its audience to spend ninety minutes feeling superior to a bunch of morons.


You know who finds that entertaining? Bad people. I regret reneging on my resolution never to see another Michael Bay movie. Bad decision.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy


After a brief prologue, Guardians of the Galaxy kicks off with likable star Chris Pratt basically re-creating the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark while boogieing to '70s soft rock. So far, so good. Then, Michael Rooker shows up as a blue-faced alien scoundrel. This you must know: while the presence of Michael Rooker is not a guarantee of quality, it is a guarantee of awesomeness. Boom. I'm in.

Soon enough, here comes Zoe Saldana, reigning queen of the big-budget science fiction adventure, put into immediate conflict with Doctor Who's Karen Gillan. We are cooking.

Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't squander its early goodwill. It takes its simple MacGuffin chase of a plot and layers it with yet more endearing characters; clever homages to films as diverse as Pulp Fiction, Slither, Footloose, and Howard the Duck; and loads and loads of well-played banter. All of this adds up to a light, fun, and exciting space opera that had my whole family laughing out loud and rocking along for a solid two hours.

As I write about it, however, I find that I'm having trouble sinking my teeth into it.  It's bouncy.  It's fun.  I'll enjoy seeing it again when it hits Netflix.  But it doesn't give me much to think about.  It's the cotton candy of movies.

That said, I like cotton candy.  Guardians of the Galaxy worked for me.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Robot & Frank

When someone goes out of his way to recommend a film to me, I hesitate to see it. What if I think it stinks and I hurt that person's feelings?

Someone went out of his way to recommend Robot & Frank to me. 

Here's the story: it's the near future. Dracula (Frank Langella) has given up his vampirism and is now a sad, lonely old man with dementia. The highlight of his week is walk to the local library, where he flirts with librarian Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon). Oh, to be young and living in a castle again!

Anyway, Langella's son (James Marsden) worries about him, so he buys him a semi-anthropomorphic robot to help out around the house. Langella regains his vigor and decides to reembark on a previous career (with the robot's help): high-end jewel thief.

That's about the time I fell asleep. When I woke up, the third act was getting started. I gutted it out, but I never got into the film.

I fell asleep because Robot & Frank never gave me a reason to care about Frank, beside the fact that he was played by an actor who had once delivered one of cinema's greatest Transylvanian counts. Since I didn't care about him, I didn't care about what happened to him. When I returned to the film after my short doze, nothing happened to change that fact.


Sorry, buddy. I wish had liked it.