Archive for June 2013

This Is the End

June 29, 2013

this-is-the-end-trailer-12202012-193922In the opening half hour of This Is the End, Hollywood loses about 90% of its thirtysomething comedic talent. James Franco, playing himself, is throwing a big party at his L.A. home, and anyone who’s anyone is invited. Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, also playing themselves, decide to head on over. The party, though, is interrupted by gaping hellmouths and rampaging demons. The end, indeed, seems to be nigh — in downtown L.A., various people are raptured away in beams of blue light. Among the survivors are Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson, all holed up in Franco’s not terribly well-fortified fortress, waiting for rescuers who never come.

The comedy of that first half hour rests largely on watching various sitcom players and/or one-time Judd Apatow cast members falling into the abyss. The remainder of This Is the End pits the increasingly unhinged survivors against each other as they fight over water rationing or territorial rights to a porn magazine. It’s funny in a lazy let’s-get-a-group-of-dudes-together-and-have-fun way that reminded me strongly of the ’80s comedy-movie aesthetic, particularly some of the Cheech & Chong films. Like those films, This Is the End was made for stoners by stoners; as in most everything Seth Rogen has appeared in, vast quantities of weed are toked, as well as copious intake of cocaine and ecstasy. At one point, Franco and Rogen sit around and brainstorm a sequel to their cannabis hit Pineapple Express; later, they and the other bored survivors actually film it on Franco’s camcorder left over from 127 Hours.

Bits of everyone’s filmographies come in for ruthless mockery, except maybe for the serenely sarcastic Craig Robinson, who has one note — he always seems to be raising a bemused eyebrow to the camera even when he isn’t — but plays it well. When party-crasher Danny McBride enters the scenario, and, earlier, when an axe-wielding Emma Watson joins in, the movie has an entertaining randomness. It sags a bit, though, when we’re just watching everyone squabble over the rapidly depleted supplies, and that takes up a good chunk of the film. Still, these guys are amiably stupid company, and Jay Baruchel, who lacks the name recognition of his co-stars, emerges as the movie’s unlikely hero and moral center.

As a potentially cameo-heavy Hollywood satire, This Is the End is disappointingly front-loaded, though a couple of surprise appearances near the end earn the big laughs they get. The movie cost around $32 million but mainly stays indoors; most of the money, I gather, went into the destruction effects and the shadowy hell-beasts who pop up here and there, chasing the guys around or visiting Jonah Hill in his bed. I would’ve liked more outdoor movement; there’s only so much boredom and annoyance one can watch before one becomes bored and annoyed. Past a certain point, the novelty of hanging out with comedians goofing around shades into irritation at watching rich people goofing around, and This Is the End crosses the line a couple of times.

Essentially, the movie is too self-amused to be truly inspired or gonzo, considering this premise and this cast — especially the cast it wastes in cough-and-a-spit roles, like Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, and Mindy Kaling. Also, self-parody may come a little too easily to a meta-actor like James Franco, who was probably funnier on General Hospital as a psycho artist named Franco. (Half the fun of a comedy like this is actors playing against expectation, but aside from Emma Watson we don’t really get that. Seth Rogen is pretty much the Seth Rogen you’d figure he’d be, and so on.) But the movie’s very self-amusement makes it go down easy, and it’ll make a decent Netflix streaming choice in a few months. It’ll sit comfortably on the shelf next to Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams or Next Movie (though C&C’s masterpiece, Things Are Tough All Over, occupies a higher shelf alongside The Man With Two Brains and Top Secret). Don’t file it with the apocalyptic flicks, though: The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and World War Z are (inadvertently) funnier.

World War Z

June 22, 2013

world-war-z-portable-20-755x420First of all, zombies don’t run, despite the “Z” in the title of World War Z. The movie’s fast-moving antagonists move en masse and bite people, but they don’t eat people — they’re content simply to spread their pathogen via saliva. That’s the second way the villains in World War Z-for-zombies aren’t zombies. Third, they “turn” within ten seconds or so, and blood-borne pathogens don’t work that way. The biters are sometimes called “the undead,” and a scientist in the movie says that efforts to kill them with lethal viruses failed “because dead people don’t get sick.” But the reason that earlier, more traditional film zombies moved so slowly and clumsily was a little thing called rigor mortis. If you’re bookin’ it down city streets and up the stairs of tall buildings, you’re not dead; you may be something else, like the rage-infected people in 28 Days Later or the depraved sadists in Garth Ennis’ Crossed comic-book series, but you’re not dead. To say otherwise ignores physiological realities like blood circulation.

So, whatever they are, the folks in World War Z are causing mayhem all over the world, and it’s Brad Pitt to the rescue. Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who quit to spend more time with his wife (Mirielle Enos) and two darling little daughters. Then the epidemic hits, and the UN pulls Gerry back in. Why? Because he has experience in the field, and because he Knows How to Do All the Things. This is fortunate, because on the very first mission the UN sends Gerry on, the accompanying virologist accidentally kills himself with his own gun before he even gets off the plane. At least I think that’s what happens; the director, Marc Forster, is widely loathed among James Bond buffs for his incoherent handling of the action in Quantum of Solace, and World War Z is Exhibit B in the case against Forster directing anything more strenuous than My Dinner with Andre.

World War Z is based glancingly on a novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), generally admired for its attention to the geopolitical fallout of a real-world zombie apocalypse. As far as I can see, the movie uses the marketable title and practically nothing else; there is no Gerry Lane in the book, at least no character who survives multiple conflagrations by the skin of his teeth, including an airplane crash. (The airplane, happily enough, goes down within presumed walking distance of the WHO Center that Gerry had wanted to reach.) The only way a proper World War Z movie could have been made was as a satirical mockumentary, for a fraction of the eventual price (two hundred million dollars). It seems as though, as soon as Brad Pitt got involved, the movie became about a hero who manages to get in and out of every pandemic hot spot and somehow figures out how to save humanity from the biters.

The big money moments involve hordes of biters — sorry, I’m still not allowing them the dignity of the “zombie” label — literally piling up to scale a massive wall in Jerusalem. But quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. A later scene in which Gerry and some associates sneak past some biters at the WHO Center achieves more suspense with, say, two or three biters. Meanwhile, safe in a Navy ship out in the ocean, Gerry’s wife sits and waits by the phone. Sometimes it rings and she answers it. Once, she takes the initiative and calls Gerry, at the worst possible time, when he and some associates are trying to sneak past some biters in South Korea. You have to be quiet around biters, you see, because “they’re drawn to sound.” Oh, I see. Completely unlike all those earless deaf zombies who wouldn’t bother you if you were leading a brass-band parade in all those George Romero movies.

Other than almost getting Gerry killed (and mercifully sending us all home early) and handing the phone over to Gerry’s UN superior at one point, the wife is useless. Mirielle Enos (who resembles Jessica Chastain enough to qualify this movie as some sort of weird Tree of Life sequel) may have been an impeccable actress in TV things like Big Love and The Killing, but you wouldn’t see that from what she’s allowed to express here. Pitt has more going on with Daniella Kertesz as a tough Israeli soldier, who reminded me a bit of Jenette Goldstein’s hardcore Marine Vasquez in Aliens, only without the dialogue or the humor. Come to think of it, Aliens remains the gold standard of humans-vs.-monsters war movies, and World War Z reaches for that here and there, and generally falls on its face. The action is unscannable spinach, the characters are dull, and the climax is the very pinnacle of anti-climax, making World War Z seem like a terribly expensive prequel to the real movie that exists past the end credits.

Man of Steel

June 16, 2013

man-of-steel-box-office-02If we’re keeping track, the real meat of Man of Steel comes about an hour and a half into it — the public and massively destructive face-off between Kal-El, or Superman (Henry Cavill), and some evil emissaries from his dead home planet Krypton. The brawlers all have superpowers in our Earth atmosphere, and they pummel each other, at full concussive speed, into buildings, fuel tanks, water towers, and many other things destined to be written off by the insurance companies covering Metropolis and Smallville. The effects employed to achieve the devastating collateral damage are, for the most part, unimpeachable; gazing at the wreckage of downtown Metropolis, we’re looking at the equivalent of about 50 9/11s. And that’s before Superman even throws down with the evilest of evil Kryptonians, General Zod (Michael Shannon).

Before all the carnage, Man of Steel goes by in an indistinct blur. It’s not that it’s simply fast-paced; this is something else. It’s paced as if what we’re watching were an afterthought — as if it didn’t matter, as if it were just lip service to get us to the destruct-a-thon. The movie flips half-heartedly through the key narrative beats: the death of Krypton, preceded by Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) packing him off in a spaceship; Superman’s childhood in Kansas, where he’s adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and named Clark; the introduction of intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who, in this telling, seems to know Superman’s identity before he fully does. All the pieces are there, but they’re put into place in a rushed and offhand way that denies anything any weight or emphasis.

This has not previously been a problem with director Zack Snyder, whose geek sensibilities and visual fetishism (he adapted the graphic novels 300 and Watchmen) have made him a whipping boy among fanboys and critics alike. At his best, when he’s allowed to ease up and slow down a bit, Snyder can create sequences with mood, heft, visual flair. But in Man of Steel he’s barreling through script pages — maybe keeping the movie down to a reasonable length was an issue, though it still clocks in at two hours and twenty-three minutes — and he never establishes a tone. Superman’s flashbacks to his boyhood in Kansas are distributed piecemeal throughout the film, so that an idyllic vision of a way of life that nourished the young Kal-El, a world whose best values he can plausibly vow to protect against his own species, never takes hold.

This sort of machine is inhospitable to actors. Henry Cavill, a face unfamiliar to most American moviegoers, is amiable enough but isn’t allowed to show the wit or the sincerity of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Casting up-and-coming cult-actor favorite Michael Shannon as Zod seemed at first glance like a fine idea, but Shannon has too much of an earthbound urban cadence to his speech, and I detected some distaste on his part when he had to deliver lines like “Deploy the World Engine,” or whatever the hell Zod says to do with the World Engine. The World Engine is meant to turn Earth into a planet friendlier to Kryptonians, which apparently means messing with gravity to lift hundreds of cars off of a busy city street and then slam them down again, like the wrath of a spoiled kid tired of his toys.

In movies, if you can do anything, it’s harder to make it mean anything. I can watch Zod hurl Superman into one, two, three skyscrapers with one mighty throw, but for all the thudding apocalypse of the sound, the mayhem doesn’t suggest any true mass, momentum, inertia — the basic physics that ground action in the world we know and make it interesting. The trailers for Man of Steel promised something almost mystical — they stole their tone from Terrence Malick, of all filmmakers. Not that I was expecting the movie to be anything like Malick, but it might’ve been something intriguing to shoot for; Christopher Nolan, after all, patterned his Batman movies on Kubrick and Michael Mann. A movie about the clash of gods should feel more epic, more awestruck, less in a hurry to get to the next uninspired plot point. This might’ve been Time-Warner’s chance to make the riskiest blockbuster ever attempted, a pure-cinema experimental film — a two-and-a-half-hour fight scene. Maybe Snyder was right; maybe nothing else mattered for that first ninety minutes, or matters in the new cinematic paradigm.

The Purge

June 9, 2013

ThePurge_thumbLGIn a scant nine years, or so we’re told by The Purge, the U.S. government will set aside one night a year when crime will go off the books. People can do anything up to and including murder during those twelve hours with impunity. We’re also told that unemployment in this brave new world (run by “the New Founding Fathers”) is at 1%, possibly because poor people are killed by each other and by roving bands of callous rich folks, while rich people can afford to hole up for the night inside their gated communities and state-of-the-art security systems. If this is meant to be a nightmare of a future Romney (or Romney-type) America, it’s as stupid as Dinesh D’Souza’s nightmare of an Obama America. Actually, the politics of this movie are as muddled as its storytelling and world-building.

This noxious sci-fi-horror-satire stars Ethan Hawke as a well-to-do salesman for a security-system company. All his snooty neighbors have made him very rich buying his product, causing some resentment among said neighbors, in one of those neat Screenwriting 101 narrative beats that depress us because we know it’s there as a set-up for a later pay-off. Hawke and his family (wife Lena Headey, daughter Adelaide Kane, son Max Burkholder) prepare to settle in for the night of the Purge, safely behind well-fortified walls and windows. Problem: the daughter’s boyfriend shows up and sneaks into the house before it’s locked down. Additional problem: a homeless man is being pursued by a pack of bloodthirsty rich kids, and the son takes pity and lets him inside.

The rich kids want the homeless man, and their leader — a diabolical smirker played so irritatingly by Rhys Wakefield that I can’t decide whether he’s an annoying actor or playing an annoying character effectively — lays down an ultimatum to the family: Give him to us or die. And so we sigh and realize this whole futuristic milieu is just a clothesline for a routine siege thriller, ripping off elements of Straw Dogs and Panic Room and Assault on Precinct 13 — the 2005 remake of which, by the way, was written by James DeMonaco, who also wrote and directed The Purge. DeMonaco must also have seen and enjoyed The Strangers, because the killers here wear meant-to-be-chilling happy-face masks.

The Purge is only 85 minutes long but feels 185 minutes long; I sat through it in a haze of complete non-surprise. Whenever one of the Good Guys is in danger, someone off-camera will unexpectedly come in with a weapon and neutralize the threat. This happens more than a few times, until it almost becomes a running joke, though there are almost no jokes in the film, other than a teenage girl saying “penis” and a loathsome character getting a quick, bloody, unasked-for nose job. The homeless man (solidly played by Edwin Hodge) doesn’t get a name — he’s credited simply as Bloody Stranger — so, out of solidarity with him, I have declined to name any of the other characters. Not that their names matter. It’s basically Dad, Mom, girl, boy, bad man.

Bloody Stranger is black, and the family (and Bloody Stranger’s tormentors) are white, though Bloody Stranger might as well be white, for all that race (or anything substantive) is an issue in The Purge. It takes Hawke and Headey a while before they decide to do the right thing and refuse to turn Bloody Stranger over to the killers, though at one point Bloody Stranger actually volunteers to be given up so that the family can live. I don’t quite know how to unpack the notion of a poor black man agreeing to sacrifice himself for a rich white family; maybe it’s a stealth commentary on how poor black men go into the military and essentially sacrifice themselves for rich white families, or maybe it’s just lazy writing. There might be true satire here, but it would take a far less bored reviewer than me to pick away at the flab surrounding the satire. To make matters worse, every so often we’re shown a “Purge Feed” on various TVs displaying what kind of chaos is going on elsewhere in the country. All I could think was that any of those feeds hint at a more interesting movie than the one we’re stuck with.

Maniac (2013)

June 7, 2013

horror-movie-reviews-maniacMy response to a remake of 1980’s Maniac substituting puppy-eyed Elijah Wood for slimy man-mountain Joe Spinell was, at first, a hearty “Whaaa?” Then I thought it over, and the idea sounded more and more intriguing. If you’re going for a fresh approach to the notoriously vicious grindhouse-horror landmark, you don’t try to compete with Spinell; you cast against him as aggressively as possible. Ergo, Elijah Wood.

Spinell’s Frank Zito, a tormented mama’s boy who scalped women and planted the tattered skullflesh on mannequins in his grubby apartment, left big and probably smelly shoes to fill. The recasting works from one perspective: Elijah Wood can more plausibly lure victims into a false sense of security — aww, lookit that face, he couldn’t hurt a fly! — than Spinell could. Well, Norman Bates didn’t look as if he could hurt a fly either, so that angle’s been done. Which leaves us with the question of whether Wood is plausible as someone who can do what we see his character do in this film. Emotionally, his Frank is as chaotic and filled with misogynistic loathing as his forebear. Physically … I don’t know, he just doesn’t look to have the upper-arm strength to be peeling off scalps with the ease with which he does it. Wood commits himself fully, but the performance seems to be a thoroughgoing, conscious effort to break away from Frodo and all his other good-boy roles. He was creepier, wordlessly, in Sin City, really.

Leave it to the French to conclude that a remake of a quintessentially American (and steadfastly ’70s New York) fleapit horror flick is not only possible but necessary. This Maniac was produced by Alexandre Aja (High Tension), co-written by Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who’s worked on all of Aja’s films), and directed by Aja associate Franck Khalfoun. What these gentlemen bring to the party that original director William Lustig didn’t is a certain cold Gallic pizzazz, which sometimes presents as pretension. The major stylistic difference is that almost the entire movie is filmed from Frank’s (often splintered) perspective, which I guess is a way to pull us into complicity with ghastly murders. At times it’s like a feature-length reiteration of the opening scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or maybe Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void crossed with American Psycho.

The you-are-the-killer viewpoint works best in quieter moments, when Frank meets and develops an interest in Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who likes to take pictures of mannequins. At one point, when the couple attend a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the camera stays stuck on Anna’s lovely face until she turns to Frank (us) and says “Stop staring! You’re missing the movie.” Some similar moments are effective, as when people react to Frank/us as if he/we were gawking at them uncomfortably. There’s enough male-gaze stuff in the movie to keep film theorists contentedly scribbling for years.

Overall, though, the camera eye doesn’t do much for the plot, and in any case it’s applied inconsistently, sometimes leaping out of Frank’s POV right when that POV threatens to disturb us the most — when he’s killing. There’s a protracted murder in a parking lot, and another in a snobby lady’s penthouse, in which the camera moves off to show us Frank and what he’s doing. What it reads like, more than anything, is an excuse to show off the explicit, excruciating gore effects by the legendary KNB team. (Aside: gorehounds will want to seek out the uncut 89-minute version for all the undiminished scalpings, stabbings, and meat-cleaver-to-face action. There’s an 87-minute cut out there that more or less renders it R-rated, and nobody wants an R-rated Maniac.)

The milieu has moved from grimy ’70s NYC to shiny millennial L.A., and, for me, the most disturbing moments seem to capture the City of Angels as a city of demons, or at least a city that turns its back on demons. During the parking-lot murder, Frank’s gaze tilts up to the L.A. skyline at night, with windows glittering in the dark background, full of people oblivious to (or indifferent to) the carnage down below. It’s a fine cold moment, echoed later when Frank, before carving up the snobby lady, stares out at the lights of the city. We wonder if there are similar scenes playing out elsewhere in Los Angeles. Maniac also uses sound to put us in an unsettled mood. The soundscape, with a score credited to someone named “Rob” (no relation), deals in the sort of menacing, rumbling, unearthly ruckus associated with Thomas Bangalter’s work for Gaspar Noe. It’s like being inside someone’s upset stomach — lots of low-register brown-note amplified-heartbeat stuff. It’s effective but occasionally overdone.

Ultimately, though, the flashy style outclasses the plot and the dime-store psychology imported directly from the simpler 1980 film. Frank is still nursing some sort of homicidal fixation on his promiscuous (or possibly straight-up whorish) mother, and he talks to the gory mannequins in his apartment as if they were disloyal girlfriends. He sees his mother in the women he kills, a motive which at this point strikes me as either faithfully retro or significantly played-out. Like a lot of the crimson-soaked French new-wave horror, this Maniac is more of an exercise in style than a genuine expression of insanity. Oddly, too, considering how approachable this Frank appears to be as opposed to Spinell’s Frank, Spinell actually made us feel that meeting the photographer (Caroline Munro) might turn him around from his psychotic extracurriculars, seeking solace in art. We don’t especially feel that way about Wood’s characterization. We just seem to be marking time along with Frank until he goes after Anna. A climactic bit involving a car crash falls into the so-abrupt-it’s-funny category but doesn’t seem meant to be taken that way.

It’s a nice try (very likely the only time “nice” will be used as a descriptive vis-a-vis this thing). These French fear-makers want to bring us back the unapologetic shock-horror and splatter of the old days, but they can’t help wedding it all to avant-garde techniques and sensibilities that end up distancing us from such mundane things as tension and suspense. This Maniac isn’t a hollow travesty — it was obviously made by folks who respect the original, and it’s nobody’s idea of a surefire big hit — but it feels pointless just the same, a gimmicky and sometimes labored retelling of a story that, it turns out, really only worked 33 years ago with an actor who looked like an Easter Island statue slathered in pizza grease.

After Earth

June 1, 2013

after_earth_wallpaper_01_wide-580Many years from now, when genetic testing at birth will foretell what career a child will mature into, there will be a summer camp for boys and girls who have been determined to be future movie directors. Late at night, at this camp, the budding filmmakers will sit around a campfire. The counselor will shine a flashlight under his or her face and spookily intone, “Gather around, children … and listen to the terrifying cautionary tale of … M. Night Shyamalan.” Eeeeek!

Once pegged as “the new Spielberg,” Shyamalan had a series of hits as writer-director: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and yes, even the much-maligned The Village made respectable bank. For a while, Shyamalan, who was legitimately talented and had an effortless command of dread-ridden mood, strutted around as if his flatulence were lavender aromatherapy. Then, oh then, came the fall: Lady in the Water (which I actually liked) followed in a diminuendo of fecklessness by The Happening and The Last Airbender.

Today — not that you’d know it by the ads — Shyamalan is back with After Earth, which proves, if nothing else, that he still values apprehensive quietude to build tension. The movie is not poorly directed. Unfortunately it has been constructed by its co-producer, Will Smith, and its star, also Will Smith, as a showcase for and passing of the sci-fi-action baton to one Jaden Smith, son of the co-producer and star. You wouldn’t really know that from the ads, either, but After Earth is basically Jaden’s Big-Ass Jungle Adventure (Occasionally Featuring a Mostly Seated Will Smith).

It’s a thousand years in the future. Earth has long been uninhabitable, so everyone has packed up and left. Their new planet, Nova Prime, is infested with ugly monsters known as Ursas, who can sense fear. General Cypher Raige (Will) has no fear, so they can’t sense him and he can kill them. Cypher’s son Kitai (Jaden) is a “ranger” in training. They go off together on a mission, but their spaceship is trashed by asteroids and they have to make an unscheduled landing on … Earth. Cypher’s legs are broken in the crash; he sends Kitai, the only other survivor, out to find the tail of the ship, which contains the beacon they need to send for help. Kitai must contend not only with the wildlife of Earth, all of which has evolved to be extremely dangerous, but with a newly hatched Ursa that had occupied an egg in the cargo hold.

Shyamalan, who along with Gary Whitta is credited with the screenplay (Will gets story credit), establishes the uneasy relationship between father and son. Dad shows no fear and hardly any other emotion; robbed of his usual facile charm, Will has little to fall back on but a rather stilted delivery that suggests that humans in the year 2113 will talk like Gina Carano in Furious 6. (Somehow, people are still using phrases like “good to go” in the far future.) Since Will is sidelined, the movie rests unsteadily on Jaden’s narrow shoulders, and he communicates a certain urgency, though not much else. The many scenes of peril are smoothly staged, with a respect for the savage alienness of the evolved life forms, though I could’ve done without the bit where Jaden tries to save some baby condors from tigers and the mama condor drags him to shelter. That adds an unwelcome anthropomorphic softness to the rest of the proceedings: Battle not with monsters, and they’ll totally save your life later, brah.

After Earth has taken a punch or two for allegedly being a Trojan horse for Scientology, but I didn’t sniff any of that. Cypher Raige’s mantra is “Danger is real; fear is a choice,” and he goes on to clarify that fear is a response to something that hasn’t happened yet and may not happen. “Take a knee,” he commands his son, and ground yourself in the present. His and his son’s real problem, though, is regret over a tragedy in the past, and they need to learn that the past is dead. If the movie stumps for any belief system, it’s Zen Buddhism. As for the overall film, it’s really an intimate two-person story, with Kitai’s mother and sister as mostly voiceless avatars of inspiration. Realists will be relieved that humans don’t find a way to return to Earth for good and co-exist with the animals; the planet remains wild and toxic, and so the film shakes out as a bitter cautionary tale. Speaking of which, that campfire story told to frightened young directors may not have such a bad ending; the movie may be flopping, but that’s not Shyamalan’s fault — he did his best with what he was given. He deserves another shot, and a stronger script.