Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This Is the End

This Is the End (2013)
Dirs. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

3.5 out of 5

The greatest joke played by the cast of This Is the End is their attempt to convince us that they’d let a little thing like the apocalypse get in the way of their friendship.  The movie’s Apatow-era comedy elite - Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel - play amped-up versions of themselves, their bickering and petty sniping coming from a well-earned intimacy rather than true jealousy or mean-spiritedness.  (Remember, some of these guys have been working together since their late teens/early 20s.)  This Is the End uses these pre-existing relationships - as well as a raft of celebrity cameos - to humorous effect as it transitions from the trials of a reluctant Baruchel attending a star-studded party at Franco’s house to a full-blown disaster movie as the prophecies from the Book of Revelation manifest in a hellish cataclysm that suddenly descends upon Los Angeles.

First-time directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg have a ball expanding an idea they originated in the 2007 short Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse, a mini-riff on close-quarters living and the solipsism that’s practically encoded into the celebrity lifestyle.  None of the marooned actors express any sort of outrageous entitlement, per se, but they do remark that their fame will bump them to the top of the list of people to be “rescued.”  Internalized privilege allows the sextet to dismiss the dangers surrounding them, a hand-waiving attitude toward the big picture that’s one part intention and one part sloppy filmmaking.  But like a particularly close family, they magnify the little grievances because they love and respect each other so much - save for McBride, who plays a quasi-villain role as the gate-crashing wild card who’s ironically best equipped to handle the situation with his brutal honesty and unapologetic selfishness.  He helps everyone realize that it’s possible to be too comfortable in your own skin, to the detriment of the welfare of others.

Still, This Is the End tends to back away from any serious self-examination, which is strange for a movie that’s literally about casting judgement.  Rogen and Goldberg’s script glibly addresses the ethical questions posed by their premise, displaying only a perfunctory sense of what “being good” entails - a concept that’s crucial to the film’s resolution.  But the lack of introspection is less of a missed opportunity than it seems.  It’s really a question of smart editing, as the movie picks up the more these stars are able to laugh at themselves and tweak their public personae for the greater comedic good: for instance, Franco’s hoarding of weird art pieces and talismans from his leading-man roles, and McBride’s boorish insouciance that peaks in a stunning monologue defending his right to ejaculate anywhere he pleases.  Similarly, This Is the End pokes fun at the very idea of disaster-porn entertainment by emphasizing the most clannish, basic levels of human interaction.  It’s a giddy and profane junior high sleepover that just happens to feature winged hell-beasts and incubi from D&D nightmares, and a pointedly hilarious diversion from more ponderous summer blockbusters. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Monsters University

Monsters University (2013)
Dir. Dan Scanlon

4 out of 5

Is Monsters University the greatest movie prequel ever?  That may sound like I’m damning with faint praise (the competition is admittedly weak), but it’s really a testament to Pixar’s excellent grasp of storytelling where brand recognition is only part of a wholly satisfying meal.  Drop a couple bits of foreshadowing and Monsters University works wonderfully as a stand-alone story about the strange, inverted world of terrifying creatures dealing with the same insecurities that their  “victims” - the toddlers whose screams are a precious natural recourse in the monster world - will have to deal with once they get a little older.  Choosing the right vocation, fitting in with the right crowd, picking the right moment to disabuse (or support) a friend’s convenient self-delusions: these are the real things that make it difficult to sleep at night.

It’s several years before the events of Monsters, Inc., and future best friends Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) and James “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman) are rivals matriculating at Monsters University.  Their bickering - and the narrow-minded disdain of the aptly-named Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) - costs them their spots in the institution’s prestigious scaring program.  To earn their way back into the fold, they must set aside their differences and compete as teammates in an inter-fraternity competition that tests their aptitude in affrighting human children.  Monsters University prostrates itself at the feet of other classic campus comedies in the early going, a montage-studded amalgamation of typical undergraduate shenanigans.  But this being Pixar, it’s more Revenge of the Nerds than Animal House - especially when the film introduces the brothers of Oozma Kappa, a group of scene-stealing misfits galvanized by Mike and Sully’s fearless challenge to the supremacy of Roar Omega Roar, a smug jockocracy led by a scaly-looking version of Ted McGinley’s Nerds character with the haughty nasal lilt of Nathan Fillion.

Monsters is one of the wittier Pixar franchises, training a satirical eye on the bedrock institutions of work and education.  (Can Monsters Senate be far behind?)  Written and directed by first-time helmer Dan Scanlon with script assistance from Monsters Inc. scribes Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, Monsters University leans heavily on the wry world-building of its predecessor, but it also succeeds as an example of economical storytelling, swiftly transitioning from one story goal to the next while filling the margins with brilliant throwaway gags and one-liners.  That wit may also prevent it from working on as many demographic levels as Pixar’s ironclad masterpieces.  The film’s reference points - 1980s slobs vs. snobs comedies and the actual experience of going to college - will be new to younger audiences, though adults will absolutely eat it up.  It’s possibly the first Pixar movie that serves as a legitimate gateway to an older, more “mature” cinema while simultaneously demonstrating how simplistic and sophomoric and bereft of real emotion that cinema often is.  Not just a great prequel but a great film, Monsters University refuses to take shortcuts, revealing new layers to familiar characters in clever and inventive ways, and earns its place in the Pixar canon without the need to grade on a curve.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

Man of Steel (2013)
Dir. Zack Snyder

2.5 out of 5

There's a refreshing confidence to Man of Steel, the new Superman film from divisive geek auteur Zack Snyder, that’s most apparent in the way it regards its charge to recount an origin story that’s already familiar to a large chunk of its audience.  Indeed, the most unusual thing about this iteration - aside from the absence of John Williams' stirring theme from 1978's Superman - is that its biographical touches tend to be an afterthought, if they’re even dwelt upon at all.  In Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer’s version, Clark Kent is an itinerant wanderer and seeker of odd jobs, concealing his identity as Kal-El, the solar-superpowered last son of Krypton, obeying the instructions of his adoptive father (Kevin Coster) to keep his extraterrestrial lineage a secret.  All bets are off when Clark discovers a hologram of his biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), haunting a spaceship buried deep beneath the Arctic; he decides to embrace his Kryptonian legacy just in time for his father’s old foe, General Zod (Michael Shannon), to drop in with designs on conquering Earth.

But while many pieces of the Superman mythos are presented with a pleasing and economical matter-of-factness (the iconic costume simply appears after Clark’s first heart-to-heart with Jor-El, saving us from some goofy explanation about the practicality of a bright Lycra bodysuit), the truth is that these choices don’t make the film any more agile.  It begins with an overlong prologue on Krypton that’s weirdly reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels with its focus on dull, stilted exposition and its contrary desire to cram another movie’s worth of action into a mere 15 minutes.  The skipping over of Clark’s childhood is just a tease, as the information is conveyed in a series of increasingly cloying flashbacks: in an unsurprising development, Superman is the latest pop culture icon struggling with daddy issues (and not just the obviously extant Jor-El ones).  The script's generic bent is unfortunate for Goyer - best known for writing The Dark Knight - but at least he avoids the temptation to bring Superman’s minimal level of angst up to code with modern expectations.  It falls to an overmatched Snyder to gussy up the simplistic arc, mistaking repetition for theme and relying on the achievements of his (admittedly talented) production designer and visual effects artists to serve as a distraction from the transparent machinery of the story.

All of Snyder’s films wind up as some sort of technician’s fantasy, which is the only directorial stamp that’s apparent in Man of Steel.  Unfortunately, the movie rarely makes room for Snyder to interject his trademark tableaux, rushing from one objective to the next on its oversize “to-do” list.  It is saddled with the same problem of visually exhausting, logically challenged, and character deficient action that plagues many blockbusters, with elements that could be used as connective emotional tissue - like an underutilized Lois Lane (Amy Adams) - tossed about like laundry in a washing machine.  That being said, this action is often exhilarating on a purely visceral level.  On the few occasions that Snyder connects the external whiz-bangery with Superman's roiling internal conflict - whether his god-like ability will endear him to the citizens of his adopted planet, or alienate them - it feels transcendent.  (The less said about the movie’s dialogue, the better.  Not even a superlative actor like Shannon can redeem material like “I will extract the codex from your son’s corpse and rebuild Krypton atop his bones.”)   But dropping some intriguing crumbs for the inevitable sequel doesn’t make this one feel like any less of a chore.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jump Cuts: TV Adaptations of the 2000s Edition

Welcome to Jump Cuts, a feature where I watch a handful of movies that have something in common in genre, theme, casting, etc. Today's topic: (fairly) recent films based on TV shows.

You have to look hard to find the signifiers of the 1980s “MTV cops” drama Miami Vice in Michael Mann’s 2006 adaptation, which casts undercover Miami police officers Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) as grim, determined professionals infiltrating the ranks of a major South American drug trafficker.  While the TV series played up the go-go culture and exoticism of its South Beach milieu (not to mention the garish fashions and music of the era), Mann presents a perversely morose morality play about two world-weary detectives and the ethical tightrope they walk to keep the bad guys at bay.  It’s a fascinating, stylish look at the consequences of unchecked hedonism, as if imagining versions of Crockett and Tubbs who’ve seen some shit in the intervening two decades but managed to preserve their youthful good looks.  

Yet all this amounts to a relatively minor wrinkle in a film that’s still pitched to a modern level of cinematic machismo; as the protagonists’ respective love interests, Gong Li and Naomie Harris amount to little more than mission objectives (protect the girl, save the girl, avenge the girl, etc.).  Miami Vice can’t escape its destiny, delivering a final fist-bumping, butt-rocking, bullet-spraying shootout - as well as a Farrell performance that’s sullied by his Scott Stapp haircut and a weird vocal register that’s deep in the Batman zone - but Mann’s unabashed embrace of superficiality is often intoxicating and always jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

A decidedly different look at law enforcement in Magic City, Reno 911!: Miami transplants the bumbling Nevada deputies from the eponymous Comedy Central faux-documentary sitcom (think Cops meets The Office) to Florida for some wacky vacation antics.  When a national police convention is the target of a bio-terrorist attack, Reno's finest - having been denied entry to the event - become the last line of defense against crime in Miami.  Reno 911!: Miami was released during the first run of the series that inspired it, so it's disappointing that the movie makes little attempt to vary the action beyond the same minor disturbances and cringey sexual tension featured on television.  

Reno 911! co-creators and cast members Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, and Kerri Kenney-Silver treat the film as a roll-call for cameos by their comedy pals rather than an opportunity to push the envelope of the series' humor, with its heavy intimation of darkness and perversion.  (A funny sequence depicting the officers' awkward ballet of nighttime desperation and simulated masturbation - all in a single take! - is the exception, not the rule.)  Drop-ins from the likes of Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt, and series mainstay Nick Swardson give Reno 911!: Miami a little extra comedic mileage, but fans of the show will likely get the same amount of enjoyment out of a weekend of Reno re-runs.

There's a certain ramshackle charm to the Will Ferrell-starring, Brad Silberling-directed Land of the Lost, based on Sid and Marty Krofft's groovy children's show about a scientist and his family trapped in an alternate dimension similar to a prehistoric Earth.  In this version, Ferrell is a disgraced paleontologist/physicist who is warped to this strange land alongside an admiring female colleague (Anna Friel) and a crass redneck (Danny McBride, obviously).  Right from the start, they run afoul of the local fauna including a cranky tyrannosaur and a shuffling race of lizard-men called Sleestaks; their only ally is an ape-like creature named Cha-ka (Jorma Taccone) who seems to indulge his nihilism as much as he helps his new friends.  

Sadly, the film never embraces the free-form weirdness suggested by its entertaining opening act, settling into a dull pattern of alternating action and comedy beats.  It's an enormously expensive lark that suffers for being too polished, for saddling Ferrell with such a lame milquetoast character, and for padding the runtime with D.O.A. gags about showtunes, dinosaur urine, and Matt Lauer.  It's nice to see Ferrell learn the value of taking risks through his adventures, but it's shame that the exceedingly safe Land of the Lost doesn't heed its own advice.

Then we have Josie and the Pussycats, which isn’t content to just poke and prod at the flimsy pretenses that support the TV adaptation sub-genre - it gleefully bites the hand that feeds it, turning a pedestrian Archie Comics spin-off into a sly satire of consumerism and the vapidity of youth culture.  Josie is actually an amalgam of three films personified by its trio of leads: ditzy Melody (Tara Reid) represents the broad comedy of the original ‘70s Hanna-Barbera cartoon, responsible Valerie (Rosario Dawson) supplies its perfunctory moral center, and the adorably spunky Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) serves as a mouthpiece for the subversive wit of co-directors/writing partners Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan.  The duo - also responsible for the superlative teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait - creates a delightfully daffy world where pop stars are used to transmit subliminal advertising messages to the masses, a plot carried out with villainous aplomb by Alan Cumming and Parker Posey.  

The movie’s wall-to-wall product placement is part of the joke, but like many of Elfont and Kaplan’s ideas, it simply went over the heads of most tweens who apparently couldn't appreciate a murderous turn by Carson Daly or a Backstreet Boys-eque band whose biggest hit is titled “Backdoor Lover” (one of the many earworm-y tunes on a soundtrack produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger).  Josie and the Pussycats may yet have all the elements of a cult classic and a generational signpost - its audience just had to grow up first.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fast & Furious 6

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
Dir. Justin Lin

2 out of 5

Here’s something interesting: each of the first four installments of the stalwart Fast and Furious franchise clocked in with running times well under two hours.  Naturally, they were built for speed, stringing together exhilarating action sequences with the vapors of a rudimentary thriller plot (though I’m partial to both the original’s savvy rip-off of Point Break and the high school shenanigans of Tokyo Drift).  Fast Five breached the 120-minute mark, though its shift to an Ocean’s Eleven-style all-hands-on-deck criminal romp partially justified the bloat.  

It doesn’t take GPS to see where Fast & Furious 6 (dig that classy ampersand) is headed.  Using the success of Fast Five as an excuse to not trim the fat off Chris Morgan's tedious, overstuffed script, director Justin Lin winds up with a movie that's running on fumes halfway into his third dissertation on motors and the men and women who love them.  It picks up where Five left off, with Dominick Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) living happily in exile in the Canary Islands and enjoying the spoils of their Rio heist.  Their former adversary, humorless government agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, looking like he’s about to burst out of his skin), contacts Dominick with an urgent request: he needs a crew capable of taking down another team of expert criminals/drivers led by a ruthless ex-soldier (Luke Evans) determined to sell sensitive military technology to the highest bidder.  Hobbs sweetens the deal with information on Dominick’s former flame Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez), thought to have died in a previous adventure but who miraculously survived - with amnesia! - and is now working for the other side.

Fast & Furious 6 covers much of the same ground as its immediate predecessor, only this time the novelty of a franchise roll call has worn off.  While Lin's scrupulous attention to series continuity is somewhat admirable, it’s also unnecessary - remember, this is a franchise that once had an installment where the only cast holdovers were the automobiles.  The film drags fatally in the middle, wading through cameos that will have most viewers reaching for their F&F appendices and wondering when the cars are coming back, and there’s nobody with the necessary charisma - save perhaps for the wry, perpetually snacking Han (Sung Kang) - to completely bring the movie out of its periodic doldrums.  (Having Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson as painfully redundant comic relief characters doesn’t help.)

Lin still knows how to direct an action sequence and plots a nice escalation of the death-dying vehicular chases, which showcase a welcome variety in equipment from armor-plated Formula 1 racers to tanks to jumbo jets.  But the movie’s trips into the realm of impossible physics are confused by the deadly seriousness of the scenes surrounding them.  They’re not all bad - Lettie and Dominick’s reunion is probably the sweetest thing I've ever seen in a Fast and Furious movie - but they can’t compare to the increasingly wild car stunts that are the series’ bread and butter.  Everyone is back, hooray.  Now, for God’s sake, let's keep it moving.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)
Dir. Joss Whedon

4.5 out of 5

Longtime cult entertainment icon and new Marvel wonder-boy Joss Whedon is the latest filmmaker to tackle the challenge of bringing Shakespeare to the masses in his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.  And what do you know: it’s one of the freshest, funniest, and most flat-out enjoyable films of the year so far.  Filmed in less than two weeks at Whedon's home in Santa Monica, this version of Much Ado has the electric feel of a family reunion that’s loose and laconic but still liable to burst into fireworks at any moment.  It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly between sparring former lovers Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), whose war of wits backgrounds the bur between Beatrice’s cousin Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese) and Benedick’s smitten comrade Claudio (Fran Kranz).  Whedon digs into his rolodex to round out the cast of merry dreamers and schemers, asking veterans of his projects in both TV (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher) and film (The Avengers’ Clark Gregg) to flex their theatrical muscles.

Modern interpretations of Shakespeare can take a cheesy turn if there’s too much focus on the “modern” and not enough on the “Shakespeare.”  Thankfully, Whedon lets the Bard’s crafty plotting and cunning dialogue do the heavy lifting, and limits the present-day ornamentation to costuming and the occasional iPod.  His one major extrapolation is with the bumbling local constabulary led by a very funny Fillion and Tom Lenk, turning it into a parodic storm of the suspenders, shades, and stale coffee seen in nearly all TV police precincts.  The limitations of the shooting location - realized in crisp black and white photography that fits the film’s “past is present” motif - becomes another charming aspect.  Transporting the action to, say, a massive Italian villa wouldn’t improve the film one bit, not when there’s comedy to be mined from Benedick’s pacing of the same narrow garden staircase in the director’s backyard.

Much Ado About Nothing was made well before The Avengers raised Whedon’s stock to stratospheric heights, and you get the sense that he could have a nice career making freewheeling small-budget films if this whole superhero thing were to fizzle out.  The material is also a perfect fit.  He grasps what is really going on behind all the honeyed words and sly intimations - this is indeed one of the sexier Shakespeare adaptations out there - and capitalizes on the wonderful chemistry of his cast to leaven the sillier aspects of the play with serious romantic stakes (and vice versa).  Whedon’s treading familiar ground, dealing in characters whose best-laid plans are upset by a litany of near-misses and misunderstandings, but Much Ado is primarily a showcase for his stable of actors, particularly Acker, whose sharp tongue belies the romantic frustration behind her aching eyes.  Wisely eschewing the temptation to make a “definitive” version of Shakespeare’s enduring rom-com, Whedon's Much Ado services the source material while keeping its feet planted in his own whimsical, wistful world.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Now You See Me

Now You See Me (2013)
Dir. Louis Leterrier

3 out of 5

There’s an obvious connection between movies and magic, both art forms that trade in illusion to provoke a strong emotional response and inspire wonder.  Now You See Me doesn’t play coy when it comes to explaining most of the artifice employed by the Four Horsemen, a quartet of magicians - cocksure superstar Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), spunky escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), slightly-baked mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and talented hustler Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) - that must complete a set of grand challenges set up by a mysterious benefactor.  But since the process involves the criminal redistribution of wealth - in their first trick, millions of Euros disappear from a French bank - the Horsemen draw the attention of international law enforcement, jumping at the chance to expend valuable resources for the pleasure of being publicly embarrassed by showbiz professionals.  It’s an admittedly goofy premise that generates too many questions with increasingly silly and preposterous answers.  But isn’t that a big reason why magicians are loath to reveal their secrets?  Don’t you always feel a little disappointed when people explain the inexplicable?

Look, this is a much better movie about magicians than Burt Wonderstone.  After a nifty introduction of the Horsemen and their mission, the film shifts to the perspective of FBI agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who reluctantly teams with Alma (Mélanie Laurent), a French Interpol agent in her first field assignment, to investigate the bank robbery.  When Rhodes professes his distaste for all forms of deception and equates stage magicians with con artists, his fate as the movie’s Wile E. Coyote surrogate is sealed.  At least Ruffalo’s testy bumbler can turn to his partner, whose curiosity leads her to actually research this “magic” thing and allows the film to sketch out an ongoing debate between skepticism and belief.

The introduction of more procedural mystery elements sap Now You See Me of its initial energy, but there are enough check-ins with the Horsemen to remind us that this is ultimately light, fluffy fare.  You take it seriously at your own risk.  Plot twists and red herrings pile up carelessly among fun performances by a cast that does its best to redeem the material.  There’s also some redemption for the director here, Louis Leterrier, a Luc Besson protégé returning from joyless franchise excursions (the Ed Norton-starring Incredible Hulk, a Clash of the Titans remake) to the brainless ecstasy of the Transporter movies that launched his career:  you can practically see Leterrier’s watermark over a tussle between Rhodes and Wilder that makes inventive and hilarious use of a magician’s typical tools.  Much like an actual magic show, Now You See Me is swiftly-paced entertainment designed to protect against greater scrutiny.  It’s too scattered and laissez-faire to endure as a guilty pleasure, but as an economical engine for cheap thrills and mildly clever humor, you could do much worse.