2012: Last Summer Movie Round-Up Before the Apocalypse

4 06 2012

Oh, hey.

I’ve been doing stuff since last we spoke, really I have. Productive stuff. Why, right now I’m finalizing blueprints on a sustainable urban childrens garden proj—ahhh who am I kidding? I’ve been watching movies about what it would really be like if The Incredible Hulk hung out with Iron Man. And let me tell you, I took MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS dead seriously, man. I did my prep work. Front to back, cover to cover, I read every single issue of every tributary comic series before even attempting to penetrate the complexities of the recent slate of Marvel films – all of them preceding, as four horsemen precede an apocalypse, THE AVENGERS, a film with absolutely no logical plot – so my months of preparatory comic book reading was for naught. Fuckin’ naught!

The Summer of Whedon

But my guess is, the record-smashing success of THE AVENGERS actually hinges on its irreverence to plot; that is to say, Joss Whedon’s film is a great illustration of the difference between plotting and storytelling. To have focused on the intricacies and inconsistencies in the so-called ‘Marvel Universe’ would have alienated a huge audience (basically, anyone who hasn’t wondered about what it would really be like if The Incredible Hulk hung out with Iron Man,) so writer/director Whedon skillfully threads his MacGuffin – a glowing “Tesseract,” dontchya know – through his film just enough to buoy his story. (Story, not plot, is the building unit, after all, of myth – and that’s what the best superhero tales are.) THE AVENGERS is, broadly, the tale of a big corporate team-building exercise. Marvel’s The Avengers meet, they joke, they fight, they fight and fight and bite, fight fight fight, bite bite bite – and nearly two-and-a-half hours fly by in Boys World before you’re being tantalized with the promise of more franchise entries to come. THE AVENGERS has moments of real humor and (where Mark Ruffalo’s glorious Bruce Banner is concerned) real pathos – and it looks outrageously hot. See it, if you haven’t, which you have. Unless, of course, you think comic books are silly, in which case, never see it. Because it will be the most indecipherable, boring thing you ever sat through. It’s that awesome.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS’ Fran Kranz, shoo-in for a ‘High Times’ Stoner of the Year nod. Bet your bong on it.

Speakin’ of Whedon, here’s a guy whose career until recently has been marked by close-but-no-cigar Hollywood hard-luck. Joss Whedon took abortive stabs at tons of big movies; his TV series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Firefly,’ and ‘Dollhouse’ were fan favorites with intricate backdrops, but they failed to reach a mainstream audience – probably for just that reason. So it’s ironic that in the same summer that Whedon finally breaks out as a blockbuster director, we get perhaps his most insular Whedonesque piece yet. Sadly, it’s one that sat on a shelf gathering dust for a year before MGM would even release it. One year late, Whedon and Drew Goddard’s THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is one of the best films of 2012 instead of 2011, a horror-comedy that must be seen, and must not be discussed around those who haven’t seen. Suffice to say, I hope Whedon’s AVENGERS grand slam brings an audience to this on Blu-ray, because CABIN really is an original – a clever, nihilistic, slasher-cinema-steeped delicacy that unlike the AVENGERS remains unpredictable up to its final seconds. I’ve seen it twice in theaters, I’ll see it again, and again and again, you can’t stop me. What’s clear from THE AVENGERS is that Whedon knows enough about genre filmmaking that he can create the genuine article at a level approaching perfection; what’s clear from THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is that he knows enough about it to pretty brilliantly deconstruct it. Either way, it’s Whedon’s summer so far.

Channing Tatum (right) and Thin Jonah Hill (left)

If you’d asked me at the start of the season which comedy would come out on top, 21 JUMP STREET or THE DICTATOR, the answer would have been obvious. A remake of a shitty 80’s television show starring the inexplicably Oscar-nominated Jonah Hill and fucking Channing Tatum? Or a showcase for the new character from Sacha Baron Cohen? But how the Hollywood wheel of fortune spins! Not only could I not have predicted that 21 JUMP STREET would be so game and so consistent, thanks in large part to fucking Channing Tatum — but I never could have foreseen that THE DICTATOR would be such a whiff. Though his latest has laughs, Baron Cohen apparently feels that a barrage of ‘lesbians with hairy armpits’ humor is more immediate and topical than – you know – anything actually topical. And so THE DICTATOR is barely more than a collection of jabs at a rotation of moot targets. And I do mean ‘rotation.’ There’s not a gag here that isn’t called back four to nine times.

Death to my credibility!

It is tricky to criticize films for the negative space they don’t fill, a slippery slope to call out a comedy for the jokes it doesn’t make, except, following BORAT and BRUNO, Baron Cohen has comedic carte blanche; perhaps more than any other working cinematic comic, he’s got a huge audience that has proven it will follow him into dangerous territory. So imagine if he’d used this film to actually say something a immediate as Chaplin did with his GREAT DICTATOR (a film this one conceptually apes.) Imagine if Baron Cohen had taken on the persona of a Middle Eastern tyrant and fired shots at radical Islam? Unfortunately, Baron Cohen is content to continue making his passe Anti-Semitic jokes, and continue to claim immunity as he does. Not only can Baron-Cohen the comic make these jokes because Baron Cohen is himself Jewish; but his Admiral General Aladeen can make these jokes because, as he states early on, he’s not an Arab. (What he is is never defined.) The filmmakers’ fear of entering into a real satirical conversation about Middle Eastern politics is perfectly illustrated in its finale: Aladeen gets married to Zoey (Anna Faris,) the “lesbian hobbit” he’s spent the film deriding. They say their ‘I do’s and Zoey crushes a glass under foot. Because, apparently, she’s Jewish. Aladeen immediately motions to his soldiers to have her executed. Cut to black, the end.

… Except, like every single comedy nowadays, that’s not the end, not when there’s a credit roll to fuck around with. And so we’re treated to several scenes over the end titles, in which we see that in fact, Zoey isn’t dead, she and Aladeen are blissfully married, and now expecting a baby… For a film that spends real estate a bogus redemptive path for its lead, THE DICTATOR leaves him at a completely contradictory point. He’s the non-Arab Middle Eastern nice guy bad guy tyrant who orders his Jewish wife dead, but not really… Haaa?

Jemaine Clement, formerly a ‘Hiphopopotamus,’ currently a ‘Boglodite.’

There are some who hold the first MEN IN BLACK in high regard; we’re talking GHOSTBUSTERS high regard. Those people, obviously, are not worth acknowledging with eye contact – especially since many of them talk about MEN IN BLACK II as if it’s a crime against cinema – a steep decline from the quality of #1. Frankly I can barely tell the two movies apart in retrospect, and MEN IN BLACK III faithfully upholds the series’ great ‘B/B-minus’ tradition. For a franchise that’s been dormant a decade, this new installment is fresher than it might have been, especially considering the litany of production horror stories surrounding it. You’ve got Josh Brolin doing an uncanny imitation of a young Tommy Lee Jones, you’ve got FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS’ Jemaine as an(other) insectoid villain – a slight variation on previous MIB heavies – and you’ve got Will Smith, being funny. But the action element of these films is never as enjoyable as the interplay of Jones and Smith, or Jones and Brolin for that matter. And there is a lot of action, though none of it really sticks. Who really remembers these films for their gadget-saturated alien shoot-out sequences? I assume there were several in part three, I can’t remember. I saw it a whole week ago.

I also spent the last week pondering MOONRISE KINGDOM, the newest Wes Anderson film – or more accurately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I didn’t like it, and whether it has more to do with me than with Wes. In the late ‘90’s, Wes was easily the most interesting, unique new voice in American film comedy, maybe in American film as a whole. As a high-schooler with more than a little Max Fischer in him (read: insufferably pretentious,) Wes’s second, RUSHMORE, was an instant personal watershed. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, then, was a gorgeous expansion on the ‘Andersonian’ style. Also, I named my dog Dignan after BOTTLE ROCKET. True story. Post-TENENBAUMS though, Anderson’s films have more or less offered diminishing returns with every variation on the theme. That being: bright-eyed youthful confidence (generally underscored by this or that Kinks song,) gives way to some small tragedy, and is finally resolved with a return to optimism, albeit with a new and delicate understanding of the world outside ‘The Wes Anderson Whimsy Bubble’ (TM.) MOONRISE KINGDOM basically fails to deviate.

Edward Norton, pictured here with two of Wes Anderson’s inner-children

I can’t exactly be upset with Wes Anderson for making a Wes Anderson movie. Most filmmakers in one way or another do just that – though Anderson, more than most, dares his audience not to draw the obvious parallels. I guess what I resent about MOONRISE is that Anderson forces the viewer to put it into the context of his other films, and so undermines what makes any one of them special in their own rite. In its way, it diminishes Anderson’s best work by stylistically & structurally drawing attention to what a blatant rehash it is. Here, we’ve got our innocents coming of age, our poignant sacrifice (in TENENBAUMS, it was Buckley the beagle, in THE LIFE AQUATIC it was Owen Wilson, in FANTASTIC MISTER FOX it was George Clooney’s tail, and in MOONRISE we’re back to killing dogs.) And we’ve got our predictably bittersweet optimistic resolve. So what if the protagonists here are children, instead of man-children, like Richie Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou or DARJEELING’s Whitman brothers? (Though with Edward Norton’s Scoutmaster Ward, Anderson does technically fill his MOONRISE man-child quotient.) Watching the man tick tropes off a list held little thrill for me. Maybe it’s me. After it was over, I sat down on my couch and put on RUSHMORE. You know, for a change. I mean, if all Wes Anderson is going to do is do the same thing over and over, why shouldn’t I?

Well, that’s all the catching up I have time for today. I’ll check back in once I’ve installed these solar panels and raised $10,000 for President Obama’s re-elec— ahhh, I’m going to see PROMETHEUS in IMAX 3D.

R.I.P. Dignan


CAPTAIN AMERICA vs. HARRY POTTER. Whose Cuisine Will Reign Supreme?

26 07 2011

Though not without muscle, Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is mainly ligament. Along with other recent Marvel Studios film properties, THE FIRST AVENGER plays as an origin story that’s meant to tie itself into – you guessed it – 2012’s THE AVENGERS, in which a metric ton of superheroes assemble for… more… of the same… I assume… Like Kenneth Branagh’s THOR, which came to us in early summer 2011, (oh, how I miss you, this May,) CAP is a solid load-bearer, and more importantly, it’s a moneymaker. Under the direction of Johnston, who made the similar-but-better THE ROCKETEER, CAPTAIN AMERICA pulls out all the stops in the tale of puuuuuny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, through a special U.S. Army serum (Serum, y’all! Only in America!) becomes a Hitler-socking super-soldier in the Second World War. That, as we all know from history class, is the cheesiest of all the world wars – or at least that’s the tone of this film… Still, I’ll take cheese over whine in comic book movies any day. Thank god we didn’t get a brooding, super-serious super-soldier in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.

Hugo Weaving as 'Red Skull,' Nazi collector of knicknacks.

The strongest superhero tales are modern myth – but as myth, Captain America doesn’t have much going on. He was a piece of propaganda first and foremost. (This film’s best sequence cleverly tweaks this real origin, tying the false and the real, until we’re watching kids reading actual Marvel comics in a world in which they’re based on a real guy.) But agitprop and connective tissue value aside, the story of Captain America is made of weaker stuff than the real modern classics. It’s weaker than the Batman revenger myth, weaker than the Superman outsider myth, weaker than Marvel’s other weakling-to-strongman myth, Spiderman. Everyone understands the crux of those heroes, the inner conflict that defines them, and through which we identify with them; hell, they’re practically cave paintings, in the age of the soundbite. Not so much Captain America. His origin story doesn’t tap into any great truth, nor is any real attempt made. He’s a patriot, he wants to fight Nazis, so, he does. And though the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely hits its marks, its proportions are less than emotionally epic. It’s just fun. Good fun, even. But it ain’t worth painting on no cave wall.

If this were a Marvel Studios movie, Chris Evans would have to battle Chris Evans. Where is your god now?!

The Harry Potter franchise, on the other hand, has over the past decade-plus proven itself to be pretty clearly cave-worthy. You can’t qualify the triumph of this thing, if only because numbers don’t lie. Harry Potter is now officially the biggest fiction phenomenon of all time. But even as it’s devoured all in its path, the Potter film series has proven a mixed bag. Parts one and two, by Chris Columbus, were kids’ movies, straight up: hard to dislike, harder to re-watch (for anyone over eight.) Parts three and four, under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, promised richer installments to come – but then, the fifth and sixth films of the series were confusing disappointments that bounced over plot points as quickly as possible, barely lingering to examine their characters’ reactions.

The series capper, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, has been wisely broken in two. This allowed the first part, which we’ll call “HPDHP1,” to breathe – GASP –  finally. Its deliberate pace and bleak visuals made it a sort of gothic triptych that promised a finish to the series that was daring, and dark – a piece in which the maturity of its heroes was matched by the franchise’s own maturity. I enjoyed the first part of this final installment, (See? SEE?!) but to say that HPDHP1 is dwarfed by its follow-up, the final final chapter, is a huge understatement.

Seriously, look at this dragon. LOOK at it.

For starters, one could argue, HPDHP2 contains the best visual effects ever put on film. It’s state of the art, stress on the art, no expense spared, so there’s nothing here that looks anything less than actually magical. Take a sequence in which Harry, Hermione, and Ron catch a ride on an ancient, imprisoned dragon; the emaciated beast elicits sympathy even in its viciousness; such is the magnificent expressiveness of its reptilian chops. And as it lopes across rooftops, struggling in its jailbreak, the effect is truly exciting. The beast’s weight is as substantial as its agony. Thankfully, to match the performances of all the dragons and elves and shit, the humans have hit their high, too. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson display unforced charm and connection that can only mean, unfortunately, they don’t despise each other off-screen. (Because that would be hilarious.) And as Severus Snape, Alan Rickman finally gets his close-up after several films of being shuffled back in the rogue’s gallery. His first speech in the film is twice as long as it could be, each syllable drawn out to sinister perfection. Rickman savors it. So did I.

Oh, so THIS is where the cool kids come to smoke.

The best achievement of HPDHP2 is that it fully realizes the catharsis of a hero who, let’s face it, as of 2011 is bigger than Jesus. But even as director David Yates plays out a climax that will deliver millions of fans to something like nirvana, nothing about the film feels indulgent or needlessly sentimental. Yates doesn’t make a weepy out of what certainly could be one, nor does he draw things out in a RETURN OF THE KING-esque attempt to sustain the euphoria of the saga’s closing moments, with seventeen fake endings. Instead, HPDHP2 is the shortest film of the Potter series; it’s two hours of thundering action and suspense, payoff after payoff after payoff. Wow.

So, how did I spend my weekend? Watching kids movies, duh. The former, I think I would have enjoyed a lot more if I were nine… The latter, I can’t imagine enjoying any more than I did.


Regal Cinemas Horton Plaza, San Diego, California

Saturday, July 23, 2:30pm showing


Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Sunday, July 24, 3:50pm showing

IRON MAN 2: The Stark Reality

27 04 2010

Summer blockbuster season always brings with it at least one big disappointment. This year’s comes right up front – and what a disappointment it is. IRON MAN 2 is a classic sequel in the worst sense: we’ve got more villains, more heroes, more money in the budget, and none of it amounts to an experience that comes even close to that of its predecessor, which stood out in 2008 as smart, effervescent counter-programming in the summer dominated by the dour DARK KNIGHT.

Mickey Rourke, seen here squandering residual goodwill from THE WRESTLER

IRON MAN 2 picks up six months after the end of the first film, establishing its villain – or, one of them:  Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke,) a Russian ex-con and former nuclear engineer, has a score to settle. His and Tony’s fathers developed the original ‘arc reactor’ together, and while old man Vanko has since died in impoverished obscurity, (is there any other kind?) Howard Stark made billions before his own passing. So with some ancient blueprints in hand, Vanko  builds his own Iron Man suit, and comes after Tony. Why only get around to this now? Eh, don’t ask.

The problems with IRON MAN 2 are bone deep, but they manifest themselves everywhere on the surface. While the first film focused neatly on Tony and his development from careless cad to honorable hero, this sequel gives him nowhere to go, and at some point in the filming/editing, director Jon Favreau must have realized this; hence, his new movie’s many secondary characters and subplots receive a disproportionate share of screen time here. Tony is all but discarded as a dynamic character – and it becomes very clear very early that without the original’s central arc (and I ain’t talking arc reactor, hiyo,) there’s really not much novel about this franchise. The same can be said about BATMAN BEGINS when compared to THE DARK KNIGHT – with Batman playing boring backup to his rogue’s gallery in the sequel.

"I took the part for the free wig!"

With Tony going nowhere, Favreau whiles away two hours with Vanko, and his relationship with Tony’s competitor, the unscrupulous businessman Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell, who was once up for the role of Stark himself, essentially becomes the Tony Stark of IRON MAN 2; he gets the funniest lines of the film, and is the best part of the film – though he’s not exactly up against stiff competition. Rourke, as Vanko, is uninteresting from moment one, and brings not one whiff of the WRESTLER’s soul to the part. (But then, it’s not much of a part.) The other performers don’t fare much better: Don Cheadle, replacing Terence Howard as Stark’s pal Lt. Col James “Rhodey” Rhodes, is given more to do in the role than Howard was – but that doesn’t mean he puts anything like a personal stamp on it. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, in spite of a promotion to CEO of Stark Enterprises, remains more-or-less a damsel in distress for use in the climax. And Scarlett Johansson… wait, was Scarlett Johansson in this movie? Hold on, let me check IMDB.

Holy shit, she was. Wow, I’d completely blocked that out.

As for Robert Downey Jr., well, you’ve got to love him, but this sequel sure don’t make it easy. The rambling free-association that became his trademark in part one here plays as aimless and grating. Take an early omen – ahem – scene in which Tony appears before a Senate sub-committee. It just goes on and on… until it begins to feel like what it surely is – 100% improvisation. By its end, the committee chair Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) and Tony are just hurling four-letter words at one another… And in the film’s interminable second act, whole scenes go by without purpose or payoff, just prattling. I haven’t seen this much cross-talking in a movie since Robert Altman died; is this IRON MAN 2? Or Dogme 95?

"OK in this scene, just say whatever the fuck pops into your head. That's what post-production's for, right?"

The sole stand-out sequence of the film takes place in Monaco, with Tony forced to fend off Vanko in the middle of a Grand Prix race. It’s hot stuff, that is, until you start parsing its logistical details. I’ll skip the breakdown here, because chances are, you’ll be seeing IRON MAN 2 anyway. Suffice it to say, basic motive questions like ‘who knows what when, and how would they know to do what they do?’ are better left unasked. It’s nifty to look at, but it requires a brain vacation to truly enjoy; in other words, standard summer movie fare.

Sadly, Monaco’s already in the rearview early in the film, and what follows is formless and poorly-paced (not to mention full of gaffes; the first meeting of Vanko and Hammer is a scene in which wine glasses disappear and re-appear several times over, and Rockwell’s uneven fake tan gets the big laugh.) Most galling, though, is that in the midst of all the filler, the producers find time to set up future Marvel movie spin-offs, on the assumption that anyone seeing IRON MAN 2 will be left wanting more. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his cameo role from part one as Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and proposes that Tony Stark join THE AVENGERS – but only as a consultant.

Take that any way you like, but it struck me as a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the future of Marvel movies from Robert Downey, Jr. After this bust, I can’t say I blame him.

Yeah, I'm bummed out too, Iron Man.


AMC Century City Theaters, Los Angeles

Thursday April 22, 7:30pm showing