Archive for the ‘action/adventure’ category

Forty Years of Jaws

June 21, 2015

This past weekend, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned forty. I used to consider it a horror film; after some thought, I decided it fit better in the action-adventure section; nowadays, though, it almost plays as a comedy-drama. Not that it doesn’t pack scares and thrills, but it has a peculiarly ’70s appetite for small character detail. Jaws isn’t really about a shark, or even really about the hunt for a shark. It’s about a man, Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), looking to make an impact on his new community. Brody has moved himself and his family from New York to Amity (a thinly veiled analog of Martha’s Vineyard), and he expects his new peacekeeping gig to be, well, peaceful.

Adapted from a fairly awful Peter Benchley novel, Jaws clears away the book’s bestseller-chasing junk and flab — infidelity, the Mafia — and whittles the story down to three men against nature. In that respect, the movie actually feels more literary than the novel does, with its echoes of Melville, Hemingway, even Ibsen in its controversy over whether to close the beach. The men — ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and old salt Quint (Robert Shaw) along with Brody — represent various male responses to societal threats. You can know everything about it, you can be a hard-ass, you can have the authority of a badge — you’re still not guaranteed to beat it (“it” being death itself).

The young Spielberg, aided immeasurably by a cadre of top-flight artists — composer John Williams, editor Verna Fields, cinematographer Bill Butler — turned in a visually restless yet smoothly, supremely confident piece of work that suggested this was his twenty-second feature as director rather than only his second (if we don’t count such TV films as Duel, which I suppose we should). Aside from the much-cited suspense that came about from not being able to shoot the problematic mechanical shark, Spielberg gets the fierce adrenaline and joy of the seafaring hunt for the monster, who at this point in the movie could be a submerged leviathan or the Kraken or a dragon as easily as a shark. Past a certain point it hardly matters.

The concept goes back to Grimm: the villagers are imperiled by a beast, and brave men must face it. It did not, of course, occur to Benchley or his adapters that brave women could also face it, but then this isn’t a movie that especially values machismo, either. If anything, a woman — the grief-stricken Mrs. Kintner — is the one who finally gets the ball rolling, shames the mayor into authorizing the hunt. The first attacks, as in a horror film, happen under cover of darkness; when the emboldened monster feasts in daylight — and on a child, no less — the conflict shifts, and most of the second half at sea unfolds in the sun. The major exception is the rightly celebrated Indianapolis monologue, which takes the form of a historical campfire tale.

In the intervening decades, during which movies have often been said to have degenerated from the glory days of the ’70s, we have been asked to imagine a contemporary blockbuster that would take so much time out for the story of the Indianapolis. It’s assumed that today’s audiences wouldn’t sit still for it, but I think they would, if the scene were as tightly edited, sharply written, and beautifully acted as it is in Jaws. The movie has been blamed for creating, or at least cementing, the box-office worship of the blockbuster era; the movie also happens to be brilliantly crafted, and I’d like to think that, more than anything, is what changed the face of the blockbuster (which for several years had been the province of generally klutzily-directed disaster movies like Airport). In Spielberg’s hands Jaws becomes a gleeful, sometimes sadistic celebration of pure cinema, man against beast, all the chthonic symbolic stuff that makes the story work even on people who’ve never been near the ocean. Forty years on, let’s raise a glass to that.

Mad Max: Fury Road

May 16, 2015

And so we return, after a full three decades, to the post-apocalypse as rendered by George Miller. Same as it ever was: Miller’s beloved original Mad Max trilogy, fronted by Mel Gibson, was a frenetic hell of sand and blood and lawless freakazoids, and the tradition continues in Mad Max: Fury Road. Gibson’s Max, one felt, was mad in both popular senses of the term, angry and insane. The rather more soulful Tom Hardy, inheriting the role, conveys only the insanity. Someone else holds the anger this time. There it is, right in the title, evoking “Nor hell a fury like a woman scorn’d.” Even the heroine is named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This Mad Max is about female rage in the face of warlike male dominion.

I don’t think Miller sat down intending to craft an action-flick SCUM Manifesto; he probably considered it a cracking good yarn, which it is, one that deviates from what he’s done with Max before, which it does. The plot is simplicity itself: Furiosa rescues five young women from the grandiloquent warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). They had been kept for breeding purposes, and one of them bears Joe’s child; now they are on the move in Furiosa’s massive war rig. Joe’s minions, a pack of powdered baldies called the War Boys, take off after them, and one of the Boys, the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult), is hooked up to Max, feeding off his blood. Joe and his people — his whole way of life — are premised on using people like disposable product. Furiosa is conceived in opposition to that.

Much of the action is real, not sculpted in a computer, and Miller gets a properly caffeinated vibe going by speeding up the frame rate — some of the motions look jerky, impatient. Where the pacing is more jagged, the images, courtesy of veteran cinematographer John Seale, are rich and bronzed and fierce — the hues pop, the compositions have rock-solid clarity. Technically, as pure cinema, Fury Road is masterful, unimpeachable. It deals in the lost art of readable, exciting set pieces; the editing is a hell of a lot more “cutty” than it was in Max’s prior outings, but Miller still manages to root everything in plausible physicality.

The movie is getting slightly overpraised for this very reason; by doing what action cinema should be expected to do, it has earned shiny gifts of rhetoric from a grateful nation of movie geeks. Expect fun, excitement, thrills, and surprisingly relevant subtext; ignore most of the hype telling you it’s the sun and the moon. Besides, some of the action is rather obviously computer-enhanced — a dust storm so chaotic, with multiple tornadoes, that we wonder how anyone survives it — and some of it is a bit samey and repetitive, which has been a problem with this series from the beginning; the constant roar of engines becomes almost a lullaby.

The freakiness elevates the film. Maleness is represented mostly by cultish deformity, death’s-head zombies looking like Kurtz’s Montagnard spectres near the end of Apocalypse Now. Femaleness, when not roughly used for reproduction and milk, seeks to get back to an idyllic sisterhood in the greenness of nature. In the middle of this is Max, and the hyper-masculine Mel Gibson wouldn’t have worked as this particular in-between avatar — Tom Hardy, with his full lips and yearning eyes mitigating his punchy features, carries enough femininity to place him naturally opposite Immortan Joe and his despoilers. Hardy is content to hand the movie over to Charlize Theron, who gives a no-nonsense performance eloquent in its silences. Talk is bad in these movies, as if language were as scarce as water and petrol, and were to be hoarded as violently.

Furious Seven

April 5, 2015

Everything we know about the making of Furious Seven — especially the tragedy of star Paul Walker’s death during production — informs our experience of the movie. It takes on an inadvertent subtext of fragility in the face of the world’s chaos, and that’s a pretty loud and dissonant ghost to be haunting the attic of such a goofily over-the-top blockbuster. Every action scene, every daredevil set piece involving Paul Walker, especially as the film moves past the hour mark, takes us out of the narrative as we ask ourselves, Is this it? Is this how they kill off Walker’s character? There’s a moment when his onscreen avatar, Brian O’Conner, seems to sacrifice himself so that someone else can live; the moment doesn’t last long, and it may, for all I know, have been part of the script even before Walker died, but it still resonates in a way that throws the movie’s high-flying escapist tone out of whack.

The plot is idiotic even by the standards of the Fast and Furious franchise. It has to do with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the vengeful brother of the previous film’s villain. His motive is simply to kill everyone responsible for putting his bro in the hospital, including Brian, Dom (Vin Diesel), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). That makes six, and a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) fills out the furious seven (which is how the title appears onscreen, contradicting the marketing, which calls the film Furious 7). Ramsey has a surveillance thing called God’s Eye that can track down Shaw. A government bigwig calling himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) tells Dom he can borrow God’s Eye if he rescues Ramsey from a cadre of terrorists. Also, Iggy Azalea shows up. I laughed at that bit, figuring that in twenty years or so, a random viewer of Furious Seven will wonder who the blond woman is who talks to Michelle Rodriguez.

Otherwise, the movie’s appeal is sort of timeless, relying on outlandish stunts as well as prolonged fight scenes that would realistically put both parties in the hospital after thirty seconds. The skydiving-cars sequence has already attained action-flick legend status, though comparing the ensuing car chase to the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as at least one critic has done, is just silliness. The presence of Kurt Russell reminded me unhelpfully of the dazzling climactic chase in Quentin Tarantino’s otherwise dull Death Proof, a chase done without computer enhancement of any kind. Here, so much trickery is used, including the digital recreation of Paul Walker in scenes he didn’t live to film, there aren’t any physical stakes. The increasing gigantism of this series has made it more 007-like, and changed it in a significant way from what it started out as — a B-movie in-name-only remake of a ’50s Roger Corman production — but has drained the action of credibility.

Jason Statham gets into fights with Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel; Paul Walker dukes it out with Tony Jaa; Michelle Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey, each wearing fabulous dresses, wreck the dresses and each other. These bouts, though also physically dubious, pack more entertainment value than the overamped car vrooming and explosions and drones firing missiles all over L.A. Maybe it’s because we know two actual people — maybe two actual stunt people in most cases, but so what? — did actual training and actual rehearsals to perform the fights in actual space. It’s the sort of thing a filmmaker can stage anywhere, and doesn’t need to jet off to Abu Dhabi and destroy three skyscrapers and spend, in total, in the neighborhood of $250 million. I will say, though, that the franchise’s way of bidding adieu to Paul Walker is tastefully, even touchingly achieved. Well done. A simple overhead shot of two cars counts for more than half a dozen cars (mostly real, I learn, but who can tell?) plummeting out of an airplane. It’s what fans of the series will remember from this film, as they should.

John Wick

October 26, 2014

Directed by two guys with backgrounds in stunts, John Wick exists more or less entirely as a highlight reel of great action choreography. The titular protagonist (Keanu Reeves), a former freelance assassin dragged back into violence, employs a variety of guns to send his enemies by the dozen to the other side. John is so adept at dealing death that the Russian mob he used to work for refers to him as baba yaga, or the boogeyman. Ah, so John is the Michael Myers of the underworld, the man who strikes terror even in hardened killers? Yet John is also capable of gentleness and love, and these two sides of him don’t really cohere.

John left the underworld when he fell in love, but his wife (Bridget Moynahan) succumbed to cancer, gifting him posthumously with a beagle puppy. Don’t get too attached to the pup, who before the movie is ten minutes old dies under the boots of a Russian lowlife whose father (Michael Nyqvist) is John’s former employer. The lowlife son, ignorant of John’s identity, shows up at his house to steal his vintage Mustang; the puppy is merely collateral damage, and thankfully the incident is only obliquely seen/heard. Still, the pup was a living link to John’s wife, so he’s riled up enough to come out of retirement and kill his way through rows of Russian thugs until he finds the one who, as he puts it, “stole my car and killed my dog.”

That motive is simple enough to have sufficed as the plot fuel for a thirties western, and indeed John Wick is simple. Every year or so we get one of these throwback action-thrillers that dispense with plot complications and simply chug along on steam made of hot blood and gunfire (and, during the climax here, lightning bolts). As such things go, John Wick is less fun than Premium Rush (it lacks quirky supporting performances á la Michael Shannon) but blessedly less pompous and brutal than Drive. The violence here, while bloody, is borderline balletic — not to the extent of the bullet-time of The Matrix or the gun-kata in Equilibrium, but the emphasis is on how comically accurate John’s aim is, how he literally bumps people off as easily as swatting flies. John is a killing machine, but by virtue of being played by Keanu Reeves he’s soulful and human. (A bit on the mopey side, though; Reeves spends the entire movie looking like that Sad Keanu photo that made the Internet rounds a few years back — understandable, given the character’s grief.)

The temptation is to make a case for John Wick as pure cinema, but I can resist it. The directors may know their way around stuntwork and fight choreography, but that doesn’t mean they know how to shoot and edit it; one scene, inside a nightclub lighted like a furnace, is visually illegible. And despite a cast including John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, David Patrick Kelly, and Adrianne Palicki as an assassin named Ms. Perkins, the filmmakers aren’t actors’ directors either. They know how to set their wind-up anti-hero on his path to retributive bloodletting, which turns out to be more than a little anticlimactic, and that’s about all they know how to do. The movie is being wildly overpraised for containing a few nifty gun massacres. I remember when we wanted, and got, more from action movies.

Dracula Untold

October 11, 2014

Before seeing Dracula Untold, you’d do well to take everything you know about Bram Stoker’s iconic character and throw it out the highest window. While you’re at it, chuck whatever you know about Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian prince whose exploits have long been thought, erroneously, to have inspired Stoker’s Dracula. For good measure, forget everything you know about Caligula, although he’s credited here simply as “Master Vampire.” Yes, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), ruler of Transylvania (ugh), was turned into a vampire by undead Caligula (Charles Dance). As an origin story, this is slightly less loony than the one offered by Dracula 2000, which posited that Dracula was actually Judas Iscariot.

Over and over again we get sympathetic humanist rewrites of Dracula, who as conceived by Stoker was just straight-up evil walking, a symbol of Victorian English mores threatened by Slavic depravity. Dracula Untold gives us Vlad the Impaler as a generally nice guy — the Impaler! Nice guy! — who loves his wife and his young son, and who only impales his defeated foes to scare off the Turks, whose army far outnumbers Vlad’s. The Turks demand a thousand Transylvanian boys for service in their army, so Vlad heads off to a cave, where Caligula the old-ass vampire hangs out waiting for someone to take over for him. Caligula rather generously allows Vlad a three-day trial period as a vampire. “Try it out for a while,” Caligula says in the funnier, more interesting movie in my head. “See how you like it.”

Vlad likes it. He can become a cloud of bats that destroy a bunch of Turks. He can remotely conduct another cloud of bats to destroy more Turks, at one point making them into a giant fist. The only problems are that he needs blood, and that sunlight and silver aren’t good for him. So essentially Dracula has been refashioned as a supernatural superhero, one who might be part of Universal’s proposed “shared universe” of monsters. It’s as bloodless as a superhero movie, too; this film about the king of vampires boasts less gore than a typical Vampire Diaries episode, and the combat scenes are likewise dry and dull. First-time feature director Gary Shore, who has a background in commercials, apes Peter Jackson’s sweeping battlefield camerawork without Jackson’s sense of strategy, timing, or drama. It’s just a bunch of nonexistent people getting knocked over by nonexistent bats.

Dracula Untold isn’t openly offensive, so I mainly let it wash over me in a wave of blandness until it was done. It doesn’t risk anything; it has no camp, no humor, little in the way of sex. It seems to have been made to appease an imaginary audience of mocking teenagers, who will find nothing here to fuel their fun. It had the odd effect of making me look back on a previous Universal monster mash, the miserable Van Helsing, with a degree of fondness; its Dracula was played with efflorescent wit by Richard Roxburgh, who knew how to do it — play with the accent as though it were taffy, and be more arch than a roomful of drag queens. Luke Evans favors us with that time-honored trope the humble great warrior, and fights his bloodlust even when his own wife offers her neck. The untold Dracula here is a really boring guy who runs into a vampiric Roman emperor and becomes a really boring vampire. Based on what the movie has to tell us, I’d rather have seen Caligula Untold.

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 2, 2014

maxresdefaultIf you take a piece of white bread and stick weird things into it, what you have isn’t anything bold or dazzling; it’s just white bread with weird things stuck into it. Guardians of the Galaxy is that white bread: ornamentally eye-catching but fundamentally bland. The movie is set in the same universe as Iron Man and The Avengers and the other interconnected Marvel-comics films, but it’s set somewhere in the cosmic margins, away from Earth, off to the side. It’s a milieu we sort of have to agree to accept as alien, though many of its inhabitants pretty much look human, only with fresh coats of blue or green paint. It’s not futuristic; it’s happening in 2014, except that its main Earth character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), has been off-planet since 1988, so his references to terran culture end then.

Peter has an Awesome Mix Tape filled with his dear dead mom’s favorite tunes, which tend towards classic rock from the ’70s. The presence of this music in what’s supposed to be a planet-hopping adventure occasionally lends it the aura of a midnight movie, albeit a midnight movie that cost $170 million. Guardians has been written (by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) with a good portion of snark, though none of the verbal barbs turn around and aim at the movie itself, or at Marvel (or Disney). It feels like a parody that isn’t parodying anything; a movie that costs that kind of money can’t be expected to have sharp teeth, and it doesn’t. It’s just smug, engaging in lightly inane badinage and lumbering into any number of cluttered action set-pieces. The jokiness commands you not to take the proceedings too seriously, as if you would anyway.

Peter, who calls himself Starlord, finds himself aligned with several other outlaws — assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), bruiser Drax (Dave Bautista), sentient walking tree Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and talking raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) — against the usual dull villain who wants to destroy everything. This good-vs.-evil plot unfolds inside the usual meaninglessly convoluted web of allegiances, various people who don’t like the Guardians, as well as tensions between the Kree and the Xandarians (ah, yes, that old conflict). Guardians would like us to find it hip and quirky, but at heart it’s like every other obscenely expensive summer movie about heroes trying to stop bad guys from doing bad things. The bad guys want to do bad things for reasons we barely comprehend — they do bad things because they’re bad guys, I take it. And they have to be stopped. This requires extremely pricey, poorly edited chase scenes, things blowing up, people shooting at or punching other people, and other greatest hits.

Gunn is clever, and I’m not immune to his nudging; I chuckled a few times (mostly at bits of business involving Groot or Rocket). But anyone expecting the perversities of Gunn’s Troma-meets-Cronenberg horror-comedy Slither (2006) or his previous film, 2010’s Super, had better keep waiting. I much prefer Super, which had the sting of human frailty, and which, perhaps not coincidentally, cost 68 times less than Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn has already made his superhero movie; this new one doesn’t really feel like his. It feels like a corporate jest, of the sort that Marvel used to indulge in briefly in the ’80s, when they would launch stunts like Assistant Editors’ Month — titles like Spider-Man or Daredevil would be turned over to less serious writers for tongue-in-cheek meta-stories that happened more or less out of continuity. Guardians is like an Assistant Editors’ Month issue writ large. But readers were expected to pay the full sixty cents for those issues back in 1984, and audiences are expected to pay full ticket prices for it now.


July 27, 2014

What are the movies trying to tell us about Scarlett Johansson? Of late, she’s been seen (or, in one case, merely heard) in three idiosyncratic sci-fi films directed by people with more on their minds than simple escapism. Spike Jonze’s Her wedded Johansson’s purr to a super-advanced operating system; Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin offered her as an alien harvesting men; and now, in Luc Besson’s Lucy (Luc with a y?), Johansson plays an unwilling drug mule whose cargo of experimental blue powder, leaking into her bloodstream, allows her access to more and more of her brain. In the Besson-verse, this means Johansson becomes the ultimate badass, able to bend matter to her will, until eventually, like Samantha in Her, Lucy slips the bonds of the material world.

What matters to the sane viewer is not whether Lucy is scientifically plausible — it isn’t — but whether it’s an entertaining riff on its hefty themes (like, what is human, man?) — and it mostly is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have many questions about it. Lucy starts out an ordinary young woman with understandably intense emotional responses to her plight — in a nice nod to realism, Besson has her barf at the sight of gangster bloodshed — but as her brain grows, as in so many of these parables, her heart seems to shrink. Johansson becomes dead-eyed and rather spooky, rattling off complex dialogue in a flat affect. She comes across as more inhuman than she was as actual nonhumans in Her and Under the Skin. Reason trumps feeling, I guess — though another nice touch finds Lucy phoning her mom and tearfully sharing infant memories she can now access — but a main character without fear makes for a movie without emotional stakes.

Lucy is probably easy to parody, what with its nods to landmarks of furrowed-brow cinema — at one point, Lucy touches fingers with a curious pre-evolved monkey; finally, Scarlett Johansson as the Monolith! — sometimes playing like Limitless remixed by Godfrey Reggio. It comes complete with a thesis statement, spoken by Johansson in sullen voiceover: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” The peak of human endeavor, apparently, being the ability to take out a hallway full of Korean thugs with a lordly wave of the hand. For extra gravitas, Besson brings in Morgan Freeman, filling the same role he did in the recent and thematically similar Transcendence. Where Johnny Depp sought to crown himself the world’s benevolent cyber-king, though, Lucy just wants to survive, to pass along information as a cell does. Is this the difference between a deus ex machina and a dea ex machina?

Ultimately, Lucy is more interesting as the final panel of the 2013-14 Scarlett Johansson “what is human?” triptych than it is in and of itself. It has its giddy moments, though. When Lucy teams up with a cop (Amr Waked) and takes him on a leadfoot tour of Parisian streets, or when she achieves oneness with every electronic device in Freeman’s lab, Besson shows a muscular imaginative glee that’s hard to fend off. The director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element has never been a thinker; despite Lucy‘s feints towards philosophy, it’s really about the cool visual, the dispassionate masklike beauty of a young woman serving up a bit of ultraviolence. Lucy was not based on a comic book, but it might as well be; essentially, Luc Besson is in the comic-book business.


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