Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Snowpiercer

Joon-ho Bong is one of the most interesting directors going right now.  With Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, and now Snowpiercer, he’s building a filmography of subtle, exciting, and thought provoking films.  This is a name that guarantees a spot on my queue.

Snowpiercer, Bong’s first production with a primarily Western cast, stars Captain America’s Chris Evans as the leader of a rebellion on mankind’s last ark in an apocalyptic snowscape.  Supporting cast members include John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and Alison Pill, as well as previous Bong collaborators Ah-sung Ko of The Host and the great Kang-ho Song of The Thirst.

Why throw all those names at you?  To tell you that Joon-ho Bong is a serious cat.  He’s someone with whom people want to work.

Snowpiercer’s a great example of why.  This is a carefully written, fully realized film that works as an action adventure, a social parable, and even something of a whodunit.  It features memorable performances, brilliant setpieces, and dialogue that provokes thought without ever drawing the viewer out of the film.


This is just a terrific movie, and well worth your time.  Fire up Snowpiercer.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Whiplash



There’s a scene in Whiplash, a film about a young man learning just how dedicated to success he actually is, that spoke to me.  In the scene, the protagonist (a young drummer at a prestigious music conservatory) breaks up with his girlfriend.  He tells her something along the lines of, “I’m more dedicated to music than to you.  This will, inevitably, hurt your feelings.  Let’s break up before things get ugly.”

It reminded me of my time at Cal State, grinding out the work so I could get into the Naval Academy.  I was sitting in the Student Union, studying for an exam, when my (then) girlfriend joined me at the table.  

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi.  I’m studying for an exam.  It’s in an hour, so I need to focus.  Let’s talk later.”

“Ok.”  pause.  pause. pause. “What’s the exam on?  Do you like the professor?  What do you want to do this weekend?”

“Now’s not a good time.  I really need to focus.  Let’s talk later.”

“Ok.”  pause.  pause.  pause.  “I was talking to X this morning.  She said Y, so I said …”

I put up a hand.  “Stop.  Go away.”  I dug my headphones out of my bag and huddled over my books.  Shocked, she complied.

The relationship didn’t last much longer, but that’s ok.  That’s the point.  When you’re young and ambitious, monomania is practically required.  Whiplash gets this, telling the story of its protagonist’s monomaniacal devotion to his drumming, even in the face of a monstrously abusive teacher.  He practices until his hands bleed, ices them, wraps them, and practices some more.  He withstands torrents of abuse, breaks, then practices some more.  He gets that success only comes through grinding labor, not a montage.

I respected the heck out of this kid.  Because I respected him, I invested in him even though I don’t care about drumming and don’t care about jazz.  And that’s the magic of this movie.  It draws us into a world about which we may be ignorant or uninterested, and it brings it to life and a compelling way.  You should see it.


That is, unless you have work to do.

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny is laugh-out-loud funny, warmhearted, and so carefully constructed that it’s like a master class in storytelling.  My Cousin Vinny is a classic.


The film is a fish-out-of-water comedy in which newly-minted lawyer Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his fiancĂ©e Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei, in an Academy Award winning performance) travel to deepest Alabama to defend Vinny’s cousin in a murder trial.  The cousin (Ralph Maccio) and a friend had been road-tripping through the South on their way to college when a case of mistaken identity landed them in Jail, so it’s up to Vinny to save the day.

This movie could have gone wrong in so many ways.  It could have portrayed the locals as hicks or thugs or any number of offensive stereotypes one could pin on Southerners.  It could have turned Vinny into a crook or a goomba or any number of offensive stereotypes one could pin on New Yorkers.  Instead, it paints the Southerners as decent, honest professionals who are trying to do the right thing.  It paints the New Yorkers as decent (basically) honest hustlers who are trying to do the right thing.  In fact, there’s so much decency and honesty going around that this film has no villain (other than the real killers, who remain helpfully out of frame). 

This lack of a villain grants the film a certain bonhomie, a sense that everything’s going to be ok, even though we know the stakes are high.  This gives us room to laugh, and My Cousin Vinny capitalizes on that room to deliver one gag after another, each rooted in the characters and situation and not simply pulled from the ether.

The film also benefits from its near-perfect construction.  My Cousin Vinny doesn’t have a one wasted shot or line of dialogue.  Everything we see either lays the foundation for something to come later, tells us something about the characters, or sets up a laugh – often, all at the same time.  It’s one of those rare comedies that rewards repeat viewing, as it gives us the opportunity to enjoy seeing all the pieces move into place.

In short, I love this movie.  I see it every few years and, every few years, it delights me.  My most recent viewing was with my 14-year-old.  I’m pleased to report that it delights the next generation, as well.  Movies just don’t get much better than My Cousin Vinny.

PS  Shoutout to costume designer Carol Wood.  This was her last film, and the things she did with Marisa Tomei are simply magnificent.  Brava!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Loose Ends


Man, this whole "job and family thing really gets in the way of blogging.  Here are some short observations about what's been on my screen.

22 Jump  Street 
Don’t make my mistake.  Do not watch 22 Jump Street in a public, yet quiet, place.  I watched it while riding as a passenger in an airplane, and I spent roughly 90 minutes biting my knuckles to keep from guffawing.
This is my kind of comedy.  It’s clever, it’s packed with gags that hit us in rapid succession, and it even blows up a car.  Really, what more could you possibly want?
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Eh.  I’m getting too old for this $#!^.
Noah
Noah drags through its first act, then turns on the juice once the rain starts falling.  If you can get past the fact that everyone’s Caucasian and has British accents, then it’s easy to accept lava monsters and ancient industrialized civilizations.  Soon, you can immerse yourself in Aronofsky’s tale of justice and mercy, prophecy and insanity.  Just don’t make it the last film you see on a 9.5 hour flight.  This is not a movie to see when you're punchy.
Cats & Dogs
What a delightful film.  I’ve seen it, with my kids, I don’t know how many times.  It just never gets old.  

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Because I'm a good father, I sat my 14-year-old son down for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure the other day.  Two observations: (1) Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have excellent comic timing, and (2) this is the 'Doctor Who' adventure that never was.


Regarding the first observation: both my son and I laughed all through this wonderful movie.  This isn't one of those cynical pictures with two levels of humor (one for children and one for their parents).  Rather, it's a picture with simple humor done well.  Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan are funny, sympathetic characters, and everything about their goofy attempts to talk themselves out of trouble (at the beginning) and save the day (at the end) is both winning and hilarious.  Their goofball schtick just never gets old.

Regarding the second: the entire premise is clearly a ripoff of then-defunct British television adventure series 'Doctor Who.'  Instead of the time-travelling Doctor’s iconic English police box, Bill & Ted's time-travelling mentor (George Carlin) uses an American telephone booth.  Instead of Gallifrey, Carlin comes from a future Earth that has found enlightenment through the teachings and music of the titular Bill and Ted.  This makes me happy.  In fact, until further notice, I choose to believe that George Carlin is the 15th Doctor.

Y’know, I have fond memories of many films from my youth.  Very few hold up, but Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure does.  It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s optimistic, and it’s everything you could want in a time-travel team comedy.  

In short, on a scale of triumphantness, I give Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure the highest rating: most triumphant.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster tells the story of influential kung fu master Ip Man.  Ip Man won renown in pre-Invasion China, suffered through the Japanese occupation, and eventually made his way to Hong Kong, where he taught a young Bruce Lee.  His is a fascinating story, told well in the film Ip Man, starring Donnie Yen.
This telling, starring Tony Leung and directed by Wong Kar Wai, misfires.  This surprised me, as Tony Leung (Chiu Wai – there’s also a Tony Leung Kai Fung, who was terrific in DetectiveDee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) and Wong Kar Wai have, in the past, worked together to make remarkable, moving, and memorable films such as Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046.
The problem is that The Grandmaster, a kung-fu biography, is better suited to the directorial talents of a Zhang Yimou or Yuen Woo-ping.  Filmed kung fu is dance: extensively choreographed, intensively practiced, and performed by people with years of training.  When photographed in medium- to long takes, it’s one of the most beautiful things one can see onscreen.  While Leung is entirely capable of performing in such takes (see Jet Li’s magnificent Hero), Wai chooses to shoot and edit his battles in a kinetic, quick-cut style of the sort one uses to hide that fact that one’s star doesn’t actually know what he’s doing.

This short changes Leung, as well as the stuntmen and dancers with whom he performs Ip Man’s contests, and draws the viewer out of the film.  Once drawn out, one begins to notice Wai’s other stylistic choices, such as snap closeups to direct the audience’s eye (rather than trusting the audience to notice important elements for themselves) and a frenetic editing style at odds with the calm and self-possession of the film’s title character.

I’m sorry to find this film so disappointing, as I have great respect for Wai, Leung, and co-stars Zhang Ziyi and Chen Chang.  Nevertheless, Wai and Leung have created enough wonderful films that I’m happy to give this one a pass.  Though The Grandmaster disappointed me, I look forward to their next collaboration.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Three Quick Bites

The Palm Beach Story

The AV Club published an excellent piece on this wonderful film last month.  Here's a link.

The Trip to Italy

Did you like The Trip?  Based on my brief review, do you think you’d like The Trip?  Well, then, you’re sure to like The Trip to Italy, which is exactly the same as The Trip, but to Italy.  What are you waiting for?




Viva Las Vegas!

Man, I don’t know.  Elvis may be one of the greatest vocalists in the history of recorded music, but he comes across as a nonentity on film.  Ann-Margaret may be a talented and beautiful woman, but she comes across as a feral force of nature who’d eat this Tupelo yokel for lunch.


Viva Las Vegas! tries to build a romantic comedy with these two, but I never bought it.  Elvis seemed like a doofus, Ann-Margret kind of scared me, and the whole thing only comes alive when The King sings one of his many numbers.  Viva Las Vegas! doesn’t work as a film, but I’d listen to the album.