Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Munchausen Weekend



(Or: All the movies I've seen in the last couple months.)

Escape From Tomorrow

Directed by Randy Moore



I had high expectations for this movie, almost all of which were unmet. If you know the premise of the movie, you might have been excited too: a guerrilla film project about Disneyworld, featuring a cast of unknowns and turning the theme park into a setting for psychological horror. Good promise, abominable execution. There are snatches of a good movie here and there, but the film is undercut by its ambition - instead of merely a low-budget, samizdat satire in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, the movie quite ambitiously descends into a weird melange of sci-fi, fantasy, and relationship drama, none of which work and much of which is patently terrible. I've rarely seen a film with such a great premise devolve so quickly into something terrible. I'm almost tempted to say it's bad enough to qualify as interesting, but really, it's just bad. (If you need proof, let me offer you two words of explanation: cat flu.)

People have speculated as to why Disney allowed this film to be released, instead of suing it into oblivion. Besides the fact that satire should be legally protected, that still doesn't answer the question of why the notoriously litigious Disney company chose not to acknowledge the film. Having seen the film, the answer is obvious: any attempt to suppress the film would have made it into a cause célèbre, and would almost certainly have resulted in more people seeing it. The worst thing Disney could have done to this film was to allow it to be released. This way, no one will ever see it.

Electrick Children
Directed by Rebecca Thomas



I watched this movie based solely on the premise. It looked interesting. It was actually quite good! This is about a fifteen-year-old girl raised on a remote farm by Mormon homesteaders, kept apart from the modern world, and convinced their father (Billy Zane!) is a prophet. Rachel (Julia Garner) becomes pregnant, and is convinced that she was impregnated by the Lord in the form of a rock & roll song heard on a tape recorder in the basement. (While the film doesn't explain exactly how she became pregnant, it's pretty obviously the work of Billy Zane, who is surprisingly credible as a terrible, creepy Mormon patriarch.) She leaves the farm to go in search of the man who sang the song on the tape - a cover of Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone" - and falls smack into the world of the Las Vegas punk scene circa 1996. (There's a Culkin in here, too - weird-looking Rory, if you're keeping track at home.) This was the debut of director Rebecca Thomas, and the film is sufficiently confident and compellingly minimal to mark her as someone worth keeping an eye out for.



After Earth
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan



I suppose I should be careful what I ask for. On paper, at least, this movie does everything it is supposed to do, and all the things I often criticize big-ticket blockbusters for not doing: the plot is straight-forward and not unnecessarily complex, it focuses on a small cast and allows the characters lots of room to breathe and develop, character development builds very clearly from the film's action sequences, and character beats clearly parallel the films theme. The problem is that even though it does all these things that we should want an adventure movie to do, it does them so terribly that it's like watching a cruel parody of competence. There's not one decision in the entire running time of this movie that makes any sense: not the weirdly antiseptic and strangely janky production design; not Will Smith's decision to play his character as an unlikable sociopath whose major goal is to instill in his son with the same brand of sociopathy; not Jaden Smith's incapacity to speak a single line of dialogue without sounding like someone about to be cut from the El Segundo community theater production of Endgame.

Considering that Smith was once an appealing actor with effortless charisma, it's depressing to see him sink so low. He has entered that rarified field of superstardom where he's completely lost touch with the difference between compelling and creepy - something which, for all the bad press, even Tom Cruise still understands. Basically, the Will Smith here is a stocky flesh suit that vaguely remembers the Will Smith who first emerged from West Philadelphia back in the late 1980s. But the resemblance stops at a few features on his doughy face. This movie supposedly cost $130 million dollars but looks like the actual budget was closer to $130. It's been fashionable for a while to dogpile on Shyamalan every time he makes another stinker, but in this instance I think it's fair to say that not even Martin Scorsese could have polished Smith's turd of an ego trip.

12 Years A Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen



I put off this one for a while because I knew it was going to be heavy going, and feared (despite, or maybe because of, the laudatory reviews) it would be mawkish in all the ways these kinds of movies can easily be. I am happy to report I was proven wrong! This is a great film that does justice to its source material by resisting the temptation to fall into the same kinds of easy sentimental cliches with which we are familiar from years of similar projects. I especially appreciate the decision to replicate as much of the rhythm and cadence of Solomon Northup's original nineteenth century prose style as possible. Even at 150 years remove, the overall feeling the movie conveys is one of respectful fidelity, as if every effort has been made to preserve Northup's own voice, and to not allow it to be drowned in self-righteous Hollywood schmaltz. The story really doesn't need to be sensationalized in any way, it's bad enough without any exaggeration. I especially like that the slaveowners are portrayed not as forces of grand, demoniacal, or charismatic evil (the nearest the film goes is Benedict Cumberbatch's cluelessly "gentile" plantation owner, who is completely unable to control his own overseers), but as bust-ass crackers whose cruelty is exacerbated by their stupidity.

I shouldn't have worried. This is definitely a movie by the same director who brought us Hunger, which I will go out on a limb and call the best movie about political protest so far this century.

Her
Directed by Spike Jonez



Although my respect for Mr. Jonez as a filmmaker knows few bounds, I nonetheless approached Her with some degree of trepidation. Although his first films remain essential, I found Where the Wild Things Are to be a significant misstep - too much whimsical melancholy bolted onto a children's story that wasn't necessarily well suited to articulating the ennui of middle-aged men. It wasn't bad, by any means, but it signified for me that the invincible filmmaker who gave us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation was all too mortal.

Reviews seemed split on the film, with some hailing it as a triumph and others criticizing it for being, again, a fluffy parable of whimsical melancholia (some reviews even managed to articulate both positions). What I wasn't prepared for, and which I haven't seen discussed, is that Her is actually at its core fairly hard sci-fi. Sure, the story focuses on Jouaquin Phoenix as a loveably pitiful schlub who buys a newfangled self-aware AI operating system in the hopes of finding a friend who won't leave him, like his ex-wife. On the surface, that's the movie's premise. But the movie is also about the consequences of creating a form of artificial intelligence with the capacity to learn, to reproduce, and to better itself, and what happens when these computer intelligences figure out just how much smarter they are than us. The fact that the movie foregrounds Phoenix's character obscures the movie's real focus: if this were any other film, like, say, Kubrick's 2001, the evolution of an artificial life form to surpass its creators would be a major, civilization-changing event. It's here, too, but by keeping the focus firmly on the small-scale consequences of this historical movement, Jonez manages to sneak a story of cosmic consequences in around the margins of a relationship drama. Definitely a return to form for Jonez.

Mr. Nobody
Directed by Jaco van Dormael



I didn't go in thinking this would be great, please don't mistake me. But I was morbidly curious to see where this was going. Like Her, this sold itself as science fiction with human drama foregrounded and a slight philosophical edge. But unlike Her, this movie stubbornly refused to cohere into more than the sum of its parts, and completely fell apart in the third act.

To my surprise I actually don't mind Jared Leto as an actor. He's pretty ludicrous as a person, but onscreen he has an aptitude for transformation that belies the vacancy of his public persona. This is a well-made movie with a number of compelling elements. The narrative gimmick of pursuing the same life down multiple different possibilities - a continuously-branching series of "what if" scenarios expanding throughout the movie - is interesting, if nowhere near as novel as the filmmakers so patently appear to believe. The sci-fi stuff is actually the least convincing part, with the last few minutes devolving into whimsical nonsense that threatens to overshadow the rest of the film, even the good parts. There are good parts, don't get me wrong. But there's also enough in the way of head-scratching nonsense to make the experience unfulfilling.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by Brian Singer



People who dislike superhero films on principle will dislike this as well, as it is by far the most "superhero-y" of the X-Men films to date. That's all to the good: I am seemingly the only person unimpressed with the Singer films' po-faced naturalism, and this movie goes a good ways towards remedying this situation by portraying the kind of day-glo hyper-frenzy spectacle that comes as second nature to all good X-Men comics. I mean, sure, static scenes of Xavier and Magneto sitting down and hashing out their differences are a staple of the franchise, but so are pointless neon action scenes. The filmmakers have so often in the past deluded themselves into thinking that these are supposed to be Important Films that we've been shortchanged in terms of idiot spectacle. This movie gives me hope that when Apocalypse shows up in a couple years we will finally get the balls-to-the-wall 80s X-Men extravaganza we've been dreaming about since we were all Reagan babies.

Anyway. A lot of criticism against this movie has been leveled against individual character motivations - seemingly arbitrary changes halfway through, etc. Maybe I'm much more of a sympathetic reader than I should be here, but it's hard for me to see these things as movies qua movies. I'm so intimately familiar with the characters in their two-dimensional incarnations that it's hard not to just plug-and-play previous knowledge instead of demanding that each movie present coherent and plausible motivations in and of itself. Therefore, Magneto's switch in the last third of the movie, which I've seen some people deride for being arbitrary, makes perfect sense if you assume (as I do) that movie Magneto keeps the same running internal commentary as Claremont's Magneto: while he's a brilliant and decisive tactician, Magneto (like many [though obviously not all] terrorists) has always been a piss-poor strategist. So obviously if he sees a clear and present danger to his agenda he has no qualms about teaming up with Xavier, but the moment that problem is "solved" he also has no problems with turning on a dime and using the same crisis as an opportunity to retake control of the narrative. That was his problem with Mystique as much as anything, after all: he was personally hurt that she had taken control of the "movement" (quote-unquote since, yeah, not a lot of revolution actually onscreen) in his absence, and needed to regain control through whatever means necessary. Which meant that, yes, once he had single-mindedly prevented her from carrying off the assassination of Bolivar Trask, he was perfectly happy to step-up and do something 1000x worse, i.e. kill the president and his cabinet, demolish Washington, DC, and fire the first salvo in the exact same war he was ostensibly trying to prevent. Because of course, the only thing that really matters to Magneto is that whatever happens, he's in charge.

And as for Mystique - well, it's interesting to see her crucial role from the original story upheld, although it's also worth noting that the reason for this has less to do with any desire to maintain fidelity to Claremont and Byrne than the fact that the producers really lucked out in signing the biggest actress in the world to a multi-picture deal back when she was still a nobody. So of course they're going to get every ounce of Jennifer Lawrence on screen as they possibly can. Even though J-Law is about as good at broadcasting menace as a Shih Tzu, I'm still completely on board for this. One thing they've missed, however, is not introducing Destiny - that's the best part of Mystique's backstory, and one whose absence has been sorely missed since Mystique's death in 1989. The idea of of someone who is for-all-intents-and-purposes immortal falling in love with someone they have to watch get old and die is a great hook, after all, and enriches her character a lot more than just "bad mutant lady who likes kicking people a lot."

(Oh yeah, funny thing, in case you were wondering, I didn't know about the accusations against Singer literally until I was in the theater before the film looking at my phone. So, uh, yeah, moral crisis averted through ignorance, or whatever.)



Godzilla
Directed by Gareth Edwards



In my eyes there was only one significant problem with this movie: it's obvious that the film was written and contracts were signed before the end of Breaking Bad. How else can you explain Bryan Cranston's domination of the ad campaign but scarcity in the movie itself? They thought they were signing up a respected character actor for a supporting role. They couldn't have known that in time between him signing the contract and the film being released Cranston's stock would go from warm to incandescent. That's obvious from the commercials, all of which focused on Cranston's role, which, as everyone knows, is nowhere near as prominent as anticipated.

Otherwise, I found little to fault. Any problems Godzilla may have are intentional and reflect the filmmakers' obeisance to the source material. Of course the main protagonist is a bland dude; of course the first half of the movie consists of precious little kaiju and a lot of checking your watch waiting for the big man to show up; and of course they even managed to sneak in a couple scenes of small children believing in Godzilla. As anyone who grew up watching all the classic Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoon local TV knows, these are features, not bugs. It's like a wrestling match: you have to wade through a boring undercard; when the face finally shows, he suffers numerous setbacks; he almost appears to be down for the count a few times, until the last possible moment when he rises up and vanquishes his foe with an awesome finishing move.

Among many, many other missteps, one of the great errors the 1998 film made was in attempting a remake of the original 1954 feature. As has been pointed out, the original film is an outlier in relation to the rest of the series, a disaster movie with Godzilla as the force of natural retribution who is eventually vanquished. Whatever other problems the movie had, the fact that Godzilla died at the end in 1998 was a huge downer. We've lived with Godzilla for sixty years. Aside from that first classic film, he's been a beloved hero for decades. We want to root for the guy. The 1998 film shot itself in the foot by killing its hero. This version, however, gives us back the Godzilla we grew up with: King of the Monsters, warden of Monster Isle, ready and willing to step the fuck up when other monsters step out of line. Long may he roar.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by Marc Webb



Oh boy! This was not a good movie! What was good about this movie are the same things that were good about the first - namely, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. They always look like their scenes together were spliced in from another, better movie that was being filmed down the hall. He's a good Spider-Man - he's actually funny and not a completely unbearable wet dishrag like Tobey Maguire, and hey, he even gets to keep his Spider-Man mask on when he's fighting now. (They long ago figured out who the real star of these movies is, and it's not the guy playing the toy.)

I am certain it is pure coincidence, but these films keep coming back to stories about corporate juggernauts stealing the golden ideas of hard-working creators like a dog circling its own vomit. This, the first Amazing Spider-Man, the second Spider-Man, the first Iron Man film - it's almost as if there's some kind of repressed memory that keeps trying to bubble up through the surface . . . nah. Still: this movie is overstuffed by half. I dislike the Green Goblin for the most part, and taking Harry Osborn - the most interesting Goblin by far - and shoehorning him into this mess was a tragedy. I liked the Rhino, I would have loved a whole movie just of Paul Giamatti cussing in Russian, but he's in here for fives minutes so whatever.

And I know there aren't a lot of people bemoaning the sanctity of Electro's characterization, but still: go back to the Ditko. Electro is another in the line of the first half-dozen Spidey villains who represents an alter-ego for Peter during his formative days - an older man with no moral compass whatsoever who gains power and immediately uses it for the most selfish ends possible. There's a reason why J. Jonah Jameson initially thinks Spider-Man and Electro are the same guy in Amazing Spider-Man #9 - not just because JJJ is a dick (although, yeah), but because we're supposed to pay attention to the fact that all these broken older males - the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, Electro, JJJ himself - represent "paths not taken," alternative versions of the same power / responsibility narrative at the heart of Spider-Man, and which Stan & Steve beat like a drum back in those early days. (He's always being tempted to use his powers irresponsibly in the early issues, if you recall, and he even does stuff like falsifying photos to pay for May's surgeries, so he's still not got it all completely worked out.) Spider-Man in the beginning was constantly being tested against funhouse versions of himself. Electro here is just a CGI schmuck with characterization cribbed off the back of a cereal box, and another in a long line of Jamie Foxx's tragic non-Tarantino career missteps.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo



This was a good movie! It came out months ago so the statue of limitations has obviously passed, but it was one of the best of the whole bunch as far as all the modern superhero movies go. A lot of the criticism I saw against these, at least on the Nerd Internet, was along the lines that this wasn't the movie people wanted to see: it came out around the same time as The Raid 2 so of course people were comparing it negatively to that, like a movie with some muscular actors who had a few months to train fake fighting could ever be the same kind of film as a movie starring a guy who's done this since he was ten years old. And because Robert Redford was stunt cast as the villain people were comparing it negatively to Three Days of he Condor, which is maybe not the best way to be fulfilled by your entertainment choices.

You know what this movie was, even with all the little bits on the side that maybe didn't hang together perfectly? This was a great Captain America movie. Do people not get how cool that is? All the other Marvel Studios characters were changed in some notable ways before they made it to film: Robert Downey, Jr's Iron Man is a completely different guy from the character I grew up reading in Michelinie, Layton, and O'Neil's runs. Thor has lost so much of the gravitas and self-seriousness that defined his character since the 60s - he doesn't even talk shit like comics Thor. But Cap - well, Cap in the movies is still Cap. Don't you love Captain America? Don't you get a thrill just from watching a movie where Captain America acts like Captain America?

This movie had me in its corner from the very beginning. The way these Marvel Studios films have spent so much time portraying the national security industrial complex as the "good guys"; using S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organizing principle for the first batch of movies because obviously we can't be expected to believe anything so strange as that a bunch of characters would actually come together to do good on their own without being told by the government; giving us a picture of superheroes that, while occasionally very compelling, was still strangely bureaucratic in a way that always seemed off - well, this movie comes in right from the top and upsets that apple cart. Captain America steps up, takes a look at the massive expansion of peacetime intelligence and the casual acceptance of "preventative warfare" and says, nope, this isn't right. That's exactly what the Cap I grew up reading would do, and I had just about given up hope of seeing that Cap onscreen.

Sure, you can hem and haw - S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't really corrupted, it was infiltrated; the end of the movie hedges its bets by trying to have its cake and eat it about the necessity of using super espionage agents to enforce American interests - but the fact is, this is a movie where even before they know Hydra exists, Captain America decides to take on the military industrial complex, and doesn't stop until the entire illegal national security apparatus is destroyed. I mean, they defeat Hydra by going full Wikileaks, for goodness' sake. Tell me you were ever expecting to see that in a Marvel movie.

(One quibble - if the Widow released all S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets, wouldn't Coulson's resurrection be public knowledge, then? Or were we able to dismiss that with a hand-wave when Skye magically erases all traces of Coulson's unit's existence after S.H.I.E.L.D. collapses? Why the fuck do I care?)

9 comments :

Dantharr said...

Just watched Escape from Tomorrowland last night, your review was spot on!

hcduvall said...

Hmmm, I enjoyed Her quite a bit (particularly the humor) when I watched it, but my enthusiasm is tempered a bit now. I actually thought the cosmic consequences part was weak, in that well, there's quite a bit of philosophy and the like out there, and the AIs are supposed to read things in seconds, that some of their questions seemed, basic? Maybe I just thought it should be faster or more alien. I thought about Her like how zombie movies have to exist in worlds without zombie stories, that Her had to exist without philosophy, and that totally didn't seem to be the case.

Captain America was the best Marvel movie thus far. I like a team-up as much as the next person, but a few less characters means a bit more time for everyone to flesh out.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you thought Her was hard SF, since actual AI researchers thought it "wasn't remotely a realistic depiction of how human-level AI would change the world"

Tim O'Neil said...

My standard for hard sci-fi is a lot different than an MIT professor, let's say that. It was a lot harder SF than I had been led to expect, let's say that.

Anonymous said...

Did you even see the 1998 "Godzilla?" Attempt to remake the original? My God, it wasn't even a Godzilla movie. That was its real downfall. It was in no way a Kaiju film; this was just an animal trying to feed and getting in trouble. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the original, very moving study on nuclear holocaust. I think it's an underrated film with a lot of very funny characters and cute action and great special effects but it is in no way a remake of the original.

Tim O'Neil said...

Well, by "remake," I meant essentially just that it was a movie about a destructive monster who needed to be stopped, not a heroic monster who helps humanity by stopping other monsters (as most real Godzilla films are). I still remember the film pretty well, even if I haven't seen it since 1998 - the trauma is burnt into memory.

DanielT said...

I had one big problem with Days of Future Past: it ruined the Flash for me.

The Flash has been my favorite super hero since I was five years old. I suppose when I was still a preteen I realized that anyone that fast would always end any fight he was in in one panel of comic time, but actually seeing super speed executed onscreen like that...

(I will conveniently ignore, as the filmmakers did and I suppose as we all must, how many problems in the movie could have been solved so, so much easier if they'd just kept Quicksilver around.)

Anonymous said...

"just an animal trying to feed and getting in trouble"

A Harmless Necessary Kaiju.

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