Category: movies

August Love List

Posted by – August 3, 2014

I’ve run into a handful of people this summer who asked me what I’m reading lately. It seemed like a roundup might be in order. Here’s what I’ve been looking at and listening to lately.

FILM

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (2013) – Bong Joon-ho had a heck of a time getting this film to the U.S. market, but I’m glad it finally arrived. The story’s parallels with BioShock have been documented elsewhere, but it seems to have struck a chord with fans of that series (a group to which I belong). I was actually more entertained by parallels with The Truman Show (1998), and the graphic novel‘s now on my to-read list.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – When this franchise got rebooted again in 2011, I honestly walked away pretty indifferent to the project. The new installment worked a lot better for me, though. Part of that was do to the much richer cast of characters – but Dawn also had a really rich sense of place and setting. Much like Snowpiercer, the locations in the story where the action was taking place added layers of history and drama what the actors were doing. This is the Bergman fan in me talking right now, but I really love when films can minimize the number of locations they’re set in make what does get used as memorable as possible.

MUSIC

Boris

Boris – I just saw this Japanese group at the 9:30 Club Saturday with The Atlas Moth and Sub Rosa, and it’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of getting hit with a wall of sound that deep. The band’s newest album’s called Noise, and it’s beautiful.

APPS

NPR One app

NPR One – The team behind this app deserves a lot of credit. The old NPR app on iPhone had become a huge mess for me over the past year or so. For some reason, it had problems resuming play with one given station and I’d have to start playing another station and stop it just to be able to begin playing the first station again (Don’t worry, it was just as confusing as it sounds). Then, there were really odd issues with advertisements playing repeatedly (Seriously, one time I walked to work and heard the same government contractor ad more than ten times amid quick excerpts of the WAMU broadcast I was trying to listen to).

This One app is the real deal, though. It streamlines the entire listening experience, personalizes content in a meaning way and does some really interesting things with interactive mic-enabled functions. (Just don’t be surprised when robo-voices in the ads start talking to you.

I really can’t adequately express what a breath of fresh air this has been (no pun intended). And it’s got a lot of potential.

GAMES

Hearthstone

Hearthstone (Mac/iPad) – I am super late to this one, but it’s my new unwinding habit at night before I go to bed – and I was never a serious CCG player. Still, I cannot for the life of me beat the spiders in the story mode yet.

BOOKS

The King in Yellow – After finishing the first season of True Detectives, I decided to dive into Robert W. Chambers’ world here. His writing is so incredibly fresh after more than a hundred years. Can’t recommend this one enough.

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy – Here’s another one I was late to, but Christophe Blain and Edward Gauvin did an absolutely stunning job with this graphic novel. Its expressive, animated visual language and insights into the sausage factory behind diplomatic decision-making made it one of the best reads I’ve picked up recently.

Review: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)

Posted by – August 12, 2012

Fair warning here. This review contains some spoilers.

As an event in history, director Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film is almost impossible to consider apart from two tragedies—the Aurora shooting and the death of Heath Ledger that forever colored “Batman: The Dark Knight.” In turn, both of those events have forever colored how people discuss “The Dark Knight Rises” and how Nolan’s trilogy will be remembered.

“The Dark Knight Rises” deserves to be considered as a single film and as Nolan’s final word on the title character, though, and those are the two perspectives I brought to my final evaluation of a Batman film that failed to articulate Batman’s meaning and nature as gracefully as its predecessors, yet ultimately shut the door assertively on Nolan’s Gotham City universe, leaving a memorable history and culture behind with a few successful, pleasant surprises.

In the scheme of the trilogy, I see the underlying premises of Nolan’s Batman films thusly:

1. “Batman Begins” (2005) — Who is Batman?

2. “The Dark Knight” (2008) — Who isn’t Batman?

3. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) — What is the absence of Batman?

The franchise’s first two installments worked so well because Nolan was working with a blank slate and almost incessantly hammered away at what Batman means as a symbol, how that makes him more than just a man and why that struggle against competing ideologies is what defines him. In the cultural backdrop of this discussion were the 9/11 attacks and the real-life urban terror that the actions of villains such as Ra’s al Ghul, The Joker and Bane now resemble in the public eye.

My esteemed colleagues Rick Marshall and Laura Hudson (as well as many others) have already identified the odd plot holes and technical oddities that populate “The Dark Knight Rises.” Before moving on into my broader critique, I would just state for the record that the bomb’s blast radius, Bruce Wayne’s climbing apparatus and Bane’s stabbing are all noticeable hiccups for the film. I accept the necessity of the suspension of disbelief for sci-fi, fantasy and superhero films as genres, but these errors all seem like problems that could have easily been addressed through tiny script tweaks or camera angle swaps.

Meanwhile, the underlying problem I kept returning to as I watched this story dealt with Bane’s nature as a character. Heath Ledger’s Joker made for a compelling contrast against Christian Bale’s Batman because the two were so clearly linked by their disregard for the letter of the law but separated by their choices to channel their anger into distinct livelihoods. The Joker chose anarchy and rampant, amoral destruction, while Batman chose the preservation of life. Ra’s al Ghul believed in wiping out un-correctable civilizations in favor for rebuilding better societies in their places. In both of those cases, Batman had overlapping experiences but was defined by a clear difference of opinion or tactics.

That understood, Bane’s story came packaged in potential. “The Dark Knight Rises” seemed like it could be the ultimate post-financial-collapse Batman story with a heavy dose of “Knightfall”-inspired beats. Ultimately, however, Bane’s nature, motivation and backstory changed considerably from the comics. He became a kind of Ra’s al Ghul lite who was built up as a mastermind, only to be demoted by a plot twist (one which I didn’t see coming and did appreciate for its shock value, by the way). Bane could have been the ultimately dirty-tactics Robin Hood, but instead he became diluted by camp and bravado that limited the scope of his character. We were left with something much more digestible as a perceivable character than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, but much lower on the totem poles of gravitas and genius than Liam Neeson’s Ra’s and Ledger’s Joker.

The Russian-doll-style twists toward the end compounded the problem left by Bane’s motivational vacuum and put a lot more pressure on the film to succeed as the third chapter of a trilogy, especially since it began bending over backwards to slip in quick story recaps and cameos in the final act. “Dark Knight Rises,” didn’t succeed in illuminating anything new about Nolan’s Batman for me, but land the franchise in an unexpected way that felt like it made sense. DC films have a weird tradition (and by tradition I mean “Superman Returns” and “TDKR”) of turning their heroes into family men now. That’s another issue altogether, but—corny, forced Robin reference aside—Nolan’s trilogy has been put to bed in a way that settled lingering plot threads and provided surprises.

“TDKR” is always going to be my third-favorite Nolan Batman film, but it’s still a Nolan Batman film, and it lived up to my baseline expectations of camera-trickery, and jolting plot revelations. In the tradition of great trilogy-enders such as “Return of the Jedi” and “Return of the King,” this one isn’t likely to be remembered on equal footing. It performed its duty honorably, though, and for that, we can be thankful.

New ‘Cosmopolis’ teaser

Posted by – March 22, 2012

Every time I see Robert Pattinson in an image from David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis adaptation, I can’t help but think how impossible it sounds to get Twilight readers buying Don DeLillo books. (I remember picking up my hardcover up off the clearance shelf at a Barnes & Noble years ago.) But I guess stranger things have happened.

Review: “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)

Posted by – August 4, 2011

Hollywood has its formulas for action flicks, screenwriters have their story beat quotas and Marvel Studios superhero films have to straddle the demands of savvy readers paying to see characters they love and the demands of audience members who have never heard of Captain America’s younger sidekick. This year, Marvel tasked Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” with bringing Jack Kirby’s glowing, cosmic version of Norse mythology to the masses, and director Joe Johnston took on the task of interpreting World War II in the Marvel Universe for a modern audience in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Somehow he managed to do that and deliver punches to Hitler’s face in stereo while leaving the international audience-friendly scenes in this film sterilized of swastikas. Thus, like the Super Nintendo version of “Wolfenstein 3D” before it, “The First Avenger” told a hard-hitting WWII tale without Nazi flags and depicted massive pre-V-Day combat in Europe without any sign of the SS within miles.

Instead, the Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) forces act as stand-ins for the Nazis, breaking ranks from Hitler’s Third Reich and going rogue so that they can take over the world.

Yes, the story beats are predictable. Yes, there is a final video-game-plot-ready boss level (so to speak) at the end, and yes, a national hero injects himself with strength-boosting chemicals in order to physically perform better in combat without suffering any of the side effects that professional baseball players and wrestlers experience when they engage in similar practices.

If you can get beyond this awkward plot point (does Isaiah Bradley exist in this universe?), which is a long-standing part of the Captain America origin story, “The First Avenger” is a fine family film. It also does an impressive job of visualizing the WWII era with Cosmic Cube-powered technology without making any of the scenes feel like they’re taking place in the future. When Captain America (Chris Evans) awakens in the present, you really begin to understand how well Johnston and his team really did in this respect.

I’ve written before about my problems with past Marvel film endings, where huge, abstractly conceived villains gain vast amounts of power out of nowhere, yell incoherent, cheaply written things very loud, and then proceed to get robbed of their power like the Wizard of Oz being discovered behind his curtain. To Johnston’s credit once again, “The First Avenger” avoids this pitfall.

The film does, however, alter Cap’s fate slightly. In the comics, he was disarming a bomb; in the movie, he finds himself (SORRY, SPOILER HERE FOR THE REST OF THE PARAGRAH) onboard a bomb-loaded plane bound for the U.S. and decides that he has to crash it. The plane doesn’t seem to explode when it nose-dives into the ice, which makes me question: Why couldn’t he have attempted a water landing or hard landing in rural Greenland or something? Perhaps he just didn’t receive pilot training, or maybe the Red Skull mentioned something off-screen about having only sabotaged the plane’s ability to turn left and right. Whatever the case may be, a few extra seconds of dialogue would have gone a long way in explaining why Cap decided that his only option was to do a nose dive. It kind of the Bear Grylls meme where he sees that the sun is setting and decides that he has to drink his own urine. Sometimes extreme action is necessary, but was it really the only choice in this case?

Forced though it may be, the action does get our hero to where and when he needs to be for the setup leading to Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” movie. It’s funny, because until after the credits roll (SPOILER AGAIN HERE) you would never know that there had been a “Thor” movie tied into “The First Avenger,” save one quick reference to the Cosmic Cube when the Red Skull is pulling it out of its resting place.

Casting-wise, the film has a lot to be proud of. There are certainly no January Jones-caliber performances this time around. Chris Evans does exactly what he needs to, and so does the anatomy-altering CGI that gets used to may him seem scrawnier prior to his procedure. Hugo Weaving sounds eerily like Christopher Waltz from “Inglourious Basterds” at times, but it words for the role.

All in all, Johnston lands the film on its feet with an powerful jolt at the end, and Whedon now has an accessible, yet worthy bar of quality to shoot for when “The Avengers” arrives in 2012.

Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’ (2011)

Posted by – June 17, 2011

“X-Men: First Class” seemed like it could be the odd one out as 20th Century Fox’s entry on an ambitious slate of Marvel Comics-based movies this year. Director Matthew Vaughn turned the clock back to 1962 make an origin story/period piece, that may or may not be in continuity with previous X-films. (Indeed, I’ll be perfectly content to see “X-Men: The Last Stand” never be in continuity with anything ever again.) In the end, he assembled the most visually inspired and overall cohesive film of the franchise.

Vaughn obviously took some notes on previous efforts. Several performances and awkward moments could have used polishing. But this film has heart. Ta-Nahesi Coates said it well in his New York Times op-ed when called the film “incredible work of American historical fiction” and noted its importance amid real-world attempts to sterilize history of its less convenient complexities, and it seems like the kind of film that would make for a great pivot for talking to kids about what happened in the U.S. during the 1960s.

The vintage set designs, archive footage and costumes all came together spectacularly to make many of the scenes look like they could have been taking place during a Sean Connery-era Bond film. Vaughn successfully captured much of the magic that made Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original “Uncanny X-Men” comics work, and he managed to pull that off with an almost completely different cast of mutants.

As far as the casting goes, James McAvoy rightfully stood out from the pack as a young, hairy Professor Charles Xavier. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for January Jones as Emma Frost, who proved to be a major letdown. I write this as a dedicated “Mad Men” watcher, but Jones’ entire performance in “First Class” failed to flip a switch to take her out of Betty Draper-in-a-malaise mode and tint her with any malevolence whatsoever.

Previous X-films fell into the trap of divvying up screen-time far too equally among their stars, and “First Class” took advantage of its relatively lesser known set of faces. Although Riptide (played by Álex González) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) became nothing more than personality-less henchmen set pieces, the movie overall turned into a fine ensemble piece, with Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) and Nicholas Hoult (Beast) all delivering exactly what they needed to.

As far as the blemishes go, there was a really odd scene worth noting toward the end (SPOILER ALERT) where Xavier suffers his fatal paralyzing injury at the hands of a stray bullet. Perhaps Magneto was only deflecting the bullets; alternatively, he may have been randomly redirecting them. Whatever the case may be, the bullet nearly flattened, either by hitting the Magnetic force field or by striking Xavier, and traveled along an odd curve to get to Xavier’s spine. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be a product of some poor planning, and by the time the CGI inserted the bullets it was too late to re-shoot, but the whole scenario raised about as many questions as the physics behind the generally accepted story behind the JFK assassination.

I halfway expected a post-credits scene to show up where it turned out that Bishop or Deadpool or someone was hiding in a grassy knoll on the island during the final battle. That brings me to a couple of other points, though, in that there was no post-credits scene attached to the end of this film. That didn’t detract from what was in it, and it’s almost certainly indicative of a lack of planning for a future installment. Nevertheless, that and Stan Lee’s absentee cameo were missed.

So in the end, “First Class” did feel like the odd Marvel film out in 2011. That didn’t turn out to be a bad thing though. It was leaps and bounds above either of the modern Fantastic Four movies, and didn’t try to live by the rules and looks that have defined the Iron Man and X-Men releases that came before it. And for that, Vaughn deserves quite a bit of respect.

Review: ‘Thor’ (2011)

Posted by – May 8, 2011

Big budgets and special effects have not always been kind to Marvel movies. Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (2003), for instance, featured an utterly and profoundly abstract transformation by Nick Nolte’s character into a hodgepodge of Zzzax and the Absorbing Man. Jon Favreau’s ending for “Iron Man 2″ (2010) opted for a shock’n awe treatment that was visionally much more articulated, but it still felt tacked on. No matter how smoothly a Marvel movie seems to be going for the last few years, the final battle scenes tend to loom over my final critical opinion like a guillotine until the final credits roll. (Post-credits moments, by contrast, have never let me down.)

Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” (2011) really set a new bar for structural integrity and balance, placing the best fight scenes at the beginning and in the middle, while letting the last scenes land organically. The phenomenal Asgard designs and renderings were already enough of a spectacle that attempting to pull off anything ridiculous would have definitely seemed like overkill, and I’m impressed that Branagh showed the restraint he did in letting the story work itself out.

This wasn’t a perfect beast by any stretch of the imagination. Natalie Portman’s character, Jane Foster, wasn’t the worst big female character to grace a Marvel movie, but despite a fine performance, Foster just wasn’t written into this film to be much more than a gushing babe who just magically becomes attracted to “Thor” when she looks at him and vows to use her science skills to find him again. The chemistry just didn’t seem to be there between them, and I think that mainly had to do with the writing.

The humor was wonderful, though. Kat Dennings fired off memorable one-liner after memorable one-liner as Foster’s assistant. And the barbarian meeting modern culture moments were amusing as well. Hemsworth played the noble brute role with charisma and valor, and the Warriors Three and Sif complemented him superbly.

As Rick Marshall pointed out with his “Thor” Easter eggs list on Splash Page, the fan service for comic book readers appeared all over the place. Jack Kirby’s art glistened throughout Asgard and even in the costumes. I also appreciated that the film didn’t bend over backwards to over-explain every element of backstory and mythos. It was refreshing to see a movie like this be true to its material and let elements like Odinsleep and Bifrost explain themselves for the most part.

They didn’t come anywhere near overdosing on the lightning, either, which was almost odd. Thor used his iconic powers as if Mjolnir required a half-hour recharge between energy attacks, which is much better than overusing them, but, I mean, this is Thor.

In the end, that seems to be the tone that defined the film for me. It achieved balance and practical restraint better than any of the other Marvel Studios projects thus far, and it owned its own aesthetic. Branagh and Marvel should both be proud. They didn’t break their genre’s mold, but they inhabited it as elegantly as anyone who’s come before them.