Tuesday, April 29, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Gravity

2014, Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, The Prisoner of Azkaban) -- download

This movie should not be seen on the small screen, no matter how big your home small screen is. This should be seen on the largest possible screen, likely in 3D. I was delaying seeing the movie because of my (bad eye) issues with 3D. I was hoping to see it on some big screen and finally... it was only in IMAX 3D. And then it was gone. This movie is about big digital set pieces, in space, in the vastness of near earth orbit. All the digital play pieces are incredibly detailed and imagined with great skill and authenticity. I will still see this on a bigger screen given the chance, but I wanted to finally see it.

You know my love for small movies.  How much smaller can you get with a cast of three, two, one? This story is all Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) with Space as the almost over-shadowing secondary character.  After an absolutely horrible disaster involving unexpected space debris travelling at bullet speeds, Dr Stone is left the only one alive. I wondered to myself whether this was the impetus for the Space Debris Section from the manga/anime Planetes.  Stone is left with one thought in mind, to get to a space station and use its lander to get safely back to earth. She is a scientist, only a first-time astronaut, so the fact she handles this so well is incredible. She has her motivation and her training, be that as it may, so she does the only thing she can do -- try.

A lot has been said about the realism vs the realistic science in this movie. I understand we are dealing with a fictional occurrence, not a documentary, so the fact it felt realistic is all I need to know. I was kind of bugged by the ease at which she transitioned between the three orbits but that was about it. The technical representation is mind staggeringly detailed, from the digitally created exteriors of the space shuttle, satellites and space stations to the vast emptiness of space. Vast seems to be a word made for space. So, accepting that is a staggeringly visual movie, I have to admit to being rather underwhelmed by the story. There might be tense escapes from Bay-splosions, but most of the movie is just her dealing.  And not stoic, super astronaut, but emotionally and fragile-y. My favourite scene is her talking on the radio with whom the internet explained is an Inuit, sitting in the cold worrying about his dog. It reminded me of something I might write in my postcard stories, small, contained and very poignant. The movie should have had more of such scenes.

Kent says....

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jodorowski's Dune

2013, d. Frank Pavich -- in theatre

I've long been fascinated by tales of films and comics and TV shows that didn't quite make it, the greatest stories never told, if you will.  Ultimately, for a tale of a failed venture to itself become a tale all its own it has to be interesting, and the people involved in both telling the tale and relaying the tale must still have passion for the doomed venture.  One of the best such stories in recent memory is the great Man of La Mancha, exploring Terry Gilliam's doomed making of Don Quixote with Johnny Depp (Gilliam could play host to a whole series of these types of retrospectives on his own).  I like these kinds of thins so much I even sponsored a Kickstarter for a documentary on the making and demise of Superman Lives, the blockbuster from Tim Burton and starring Nic Cage as the Man of Steel that had spent many millions in preproduction before getting kaiboshed.   Science Fiction Land (another Kickstarted feature) tells of the film adaptation-come-theme park based off a Roger Zelazny novel that was repurposed into "Argo" (the film within a film of the Canadian Caper).

These failed endeavours often become notorious, legend, and they build and build in the fertile minds of fans who take snippets of promise and expand them into glorious triumphs that were unceremoniously squashed.  Alejandro Jodorowski's Dune is one such project, if not the grandaddy of such projects.  Jodorowski, coming off some art house/midnight cinema success with El Topo and the Holy Mountain had requested Dune for his next project having, as he claims, next to no familiarity with the Frank Herbert novel.  His plans for the film were to make it into a psychedelic
story of a prophet, but, with a few exceptions, hew largely to the basic beats of the source.  He read the book in a rented castle over a weekend and had his vision laid out before him. 

Next was to seek out the individuals who could bring his vision to life.  The first such person was French comic book artist Moebius, with whom he sat down and created the film's storyboards and script.  Following the creation of the film's bible, he wrangled his acting and artistic team.   The latter consisted of sci-fi cover artist Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, with Dan O'Bannon (having come off his student project, the sci-fi spoof Dark Star with John Carpenter) as visual effects artists (Jodorowsky turned away from Douglas Trumbull because he was not a passionate man, he said). 

The cast he sought out (and confirmed, according to him) is perhaps the most eclectic group that would have ever been put to screen.  Paul Atreides was to be played by Jodorowski's son, while the senior Atreides had David Carradine in the role.  Beyond that, parts were accepted (reluctantly) by Salvador Dali and his (possibly transsexual) companion, Orson Wells and Mick Jagger.  Jodorowsky was also lining up different rock bands to be the "house" sound for each family in the film, including, apparently, Pink Floyd.

The designs of the project were phenomenal, and some of the ideas, like the opening tracking shot spanning a galaxy, are incredibly advanced, but the dirty secret of this film, one that's never actually acknowledged, is that it would have been an unmitigated disaster.  It would have been a righteously terrible film, with the cabal of non-actors being the least of its problems.  The scope of Jodorowski's vision were well beyond the technical capabilities of the 1970's, and certainly that of an inexperienced effects artist like O'Bannon. 

The documentary is still a fun exploration of what the writer/director had in mind, and he's a genuinely appealing and loveable madman, full of ferocity and life and passion even in his 80's.  It's inspiring to see many of Foss and Giger and Moebius' designs (though the few practical applications of those designs captured were, tellingly, gnarly) and to hear those who were interviewed still retain the passion for the picture.  But the explicit hyperbolic pompousness used in this film from Jodorowski, the talking heads of the nerd site film reviewers and cult filmmakers (Nicolas Winding Refn particularly) borders on insulting.  It's quite clear that they have affection for the project, but the exaltation of the film as a lost masterpiece rather than the trainwreck curiosity it was shaping up to be feels like stabby needles in the logic center. 

Jodorowsky throws down the challenge for someone to take his impressive bible of storyboards and concept art and make a direct animated adaptation of it.  That probably would have been the best route to go in 1975 with it too.   But as the documentary points out, Jodorowski's Dune has been dispersed into dozens of little pieces with his graphic novel series The Incal and Metabarons, the films that his production team went on to do after, like Alien (which also included O'Bannon, Foss and Giger), and scenes cribbed rather closely to Moebius' storyboards appearing in other features... so a direct adaptation would likely be less inspiring today. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2

2013, d. Cody Cameron & Kris Pearson - redbox

David's Take on this gratuitous and wasted sequel wasn't much of a take, and at the same time was pretty close to the perfect take on a film that squandered every potential.  The first CWACOM remains utterly brilliant, one of the best animated comedies ever made.  I've seen it bordering on 20 times at this point and still do not tire of it.  I've brought it up multiple times recently, both in my review of The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, since its success was due in no small part to director's Phil Lord and Chris Miller's comedic sensibilities, which fit into place around a profoundly unique cast of SNL (Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Will Forte) veterans and pop culture icons (Mr. T, Bruce Campbell, Neil Patrick Harris).  It was a film about an awkward scientist man-child named Flint who finally builds a contraption that actually works, this one converting vapor in the air into food.  That premise permitted the film to explore Flint's tense dynamic with his straight-laced fisherman father, as well as a budding relationship with a weather reporter Sam Sparks, not to mention his relationship with the rest of the denizens of his small, isolated Sardine-supported island town.  It was a coming-of-age/arrested-development tale, a G-rated, absurd 40-Year-Old Virgin.

After the events of the first movie, where the The Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator (or FLDSMDFR) seemed to have been destroyed and the island abandoned, we catch a brief glimpse of most of the cast in their new, relocated life.  But the FLDSMDFR wasn't destroyed and has instead evolved, creating food-animal hybrids and a new ecosystem for the island.  A megalomaniac scientist operating an omnipresent Google-to-the-extreme-style company has a mind to steal the machine for his own ends but needs Flint's experience to actually gain control of it.  Flint and his rag tag group of friends return to the island to stop the threat of the machine and it's monstrous food beasts only to learn that they're only being protective and not threatening world domination.

As David noted, it's a riff off Jurassic Park 2, but I was hoping for more of a Jurassic Park 1 vibe (wouldn't it have been more interesting had Flint, Sam and company returned to the island to find it a theme park and have to discover the horrifying source of all the food-animals?).  Even still the basic plot isn't at fault, it's the terrible undermining of the characters that we came to know, particularly in Flint's dad, who acts nothing like he did in the first film, and the lack of purpose for characters like Manny, Sam and Brent.  There's very little for them to do in this picture except be upset with Flint only to shortly reconcile with him.  There's also the  theme of vegetarianism underlying the story, but then the film ends on the characters fishing, so I don't know what's up with that.  It lacks conviction and, generally, it's just not very good.   With only the story credited to Lord and Miller (likely them just saying "Picture Jurassic Park 2 but with the FLDSMDFR making food-animal hybrids" and going back to Jump Street) it's a modest failure in the hands of a novice directorial team a mish-mash of writers.  About the only thing that worked for me were the copious food-based puns ("there's a leek in the boat!" still cracks me up).

3 Short Paragraphs: Prisoners

2013, Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) -- download

I briefly commented on my review of Starbuck that I liked the way it used its locations, but I never really said why. Most movies dispense with the characterization of a location, seeking either very generic or very obvious shots. A movie set in NYC is going to show Times Square as often as it shows a street of brownstones that could, and often are, from anywhere. But the Quebec cinema, both in its geographic confines and its choices, often makes the more interesting choice.  Yes, more interesting even in the depiction of the mundane. The first thing that caught my eye in Prisoners was the older neighbourhood the movie takes place in. This is a suburb that has grown slowly over 30 years, seen via the mixture of middle class split-level and upper-middle class two story homes. With this we are connected to the two families who live here, one working class, one a little better dressed. Instantly, Villeneuve has shown a choice which, for me, made this very mundane crime story stand out.

The Dovers (Hugh Jackman & Maria Bello) are friends and neighbours with the Birches (Terrence Howard & Viola Davis), spending the Thanksgiving holiday together in a rainy, tired subdivision. The kids are bored, either lost in TV or running around outside. Then, as the cliche goes, every parent's worst nightmare happens and the youngest children are abducted. An obviously out of place RV leads investigators to Paul Dano's Alex, an obviously damaged young man. They are convinced he took the kids but cannot get anything out of him. Thus begins Keller Dover's descent, as he takes the investigation out of the hands of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and into his own bloodied fists.

At its heart, this movie is a standard genre crime movie, investigating the disappearance of two girls with some frustrating police procedural tossed in. Loki is good, too good for this small police department and he takes his frustrations out by bullying the Captain. But it is how this movie is wrapped that makes it pretty damned good. The main characters are its centre. Loki, obviously a man of violence from his old, faded tattoos works the case chained by protocol and fact. The more he is stonewalled, the more he blinks. Keller, a good, right Christian man, finds the violence within to actually dig out the truth. It is as chilling as the wet snow they slog through. When truths finally reveal, they shock both men, if not the viewers -- we are jaded, crime junkies while these play the part of real people for us.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Violet & Daisy

2011, Geoffrey Fletcher -- download

Its odd the way the brain works but for some reason I associate Saoirse Ronan as a young woman type-cast in violent movies. But really, it only really centers around Hanna.  Sure, many of her other movies have violence as part of the plot (The Host, The Lovely Bones, Byzantium) but nothing so much as tossed her in the centre of such as Hanna and this one. Maybe its because I still believe she should have been Katniss.

Again, Ms Ronan is playing a Daisy. This time, she is a wispy teenage waif in a movie that is almost entirely style and little substance. Daisy & Violet are assassins, working for an anonymous boss in NYC, slaying whomever he assigns and spending the money on clothes and the latest pop star to catch their attention. They are both broken girls, with some plot points hinting at asylums and breakdowns, who are not quite attached to reality. The story here is around a single hit, the man (James Gandolfini) who asked for it, and the complications that ensue.

The movie is all over the place, sometimes being strangely dreamy with flashbacks and sequences that may be in their head. Sometimes, as expected in a movie about teen assassins, it is stylish-ultra-violence. It attempts to be introspective, with Daisy connecting with the man they are supposed to kill, father-figure and such. It tries to hint at a deeper story but never really explores it, thus failing. I liked elements of it, but really, I could never really recommend except perhaps as a study as to how a first time director should do and not do certain things.

Friday, April 18, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: How I Live Now

2013, Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) -- download

Apparently, the bulk of post-apocalyptic fiction is being written for the teen genre these days. We obviously have The Hunger Games and Divergent doing well for themselves, reaching more into the sub-genre of dystopia. This particular sub-genre of Third World War is not as explored these days, post cold war. We just don't have that fear anymore of being invaded by another country or someone clicking the red button and releasing the nukes. Even the terrorists are more about smuggled dirty bombs in major cities than all out war. Anywayz, in this small sub-genre we have the well known Red Dawn and Tomorrow, When the War Began, which I compared here. And we have this one.

It makes sense that introspective teens would like the genre. They live in a world where everything is laid before them, all the opportunities and potential of living 1st World. So how would they react, if all that was taken away? This is the core of the plot of this book now movie. Daisy is a whiny American brat with a host of self-induced neuroses and unlikable attitude. She is sent to live with her deceased mother's family for the summer, perhaps to help her work things out but more likely to just dump her on someone else. And then WWIII starts in the UK. She has to strip herself of all the BS and work to save the lives of her cousins and reconnect with her (er, ick?) love interest cousin.

The character of Daisy lives inside her head and while the movie is about her coming out of that, to deal with real life, the movie mostly stays inside her head. Much of the movie is shot in over-exposed imagery, all floating pollen and bright sunlight. Very little of the movie is about the war, as it is happening Far Away, and like many in this sub-genre, we don't know the details of the war. But it does do a good job of reminding us that war is hell. They don't cringe on deaths in this movie, not leaving a single character, young or old, untouched by the evils that man can do. But really, I think I might have to be a gloomy 16 year old girl to truly enjoy this movie.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I Saw This!! Hodgepodge

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so.  Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all.  And they can't do that, can they?

In this edition of "I Saw This!!" Graig covers:

The Heat (DVD)
Argo (DVD)
The Station Agent (Netflix)

Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight (Netflix)
21 Jump Street (Netflix)


The Heat (2012, d. Paul Feig), not to be confused with Michael Mann's epic Heat (no "The"), from what I can recall is formula buddy-cop comedy in the 1980's vein, but with a gender twist.  Paul Feig reunites with Melissa McCarthy, whom he made into a superstar with his stellar Bridesmaids vehicle, and puts her here as the crazy cop partner to Sandra Bullock's straight-laced, uptight FBI agent.  McCarthy is heavily rough around the edges, a Dirty Harry-style cop who plays by her own rules and scares the crap out of everyone.  She wears a consistent set of ratty clothes that strains to be called a wardrobe and lives in a bachelor apartment where her fridge doubles as a weapons locker.  Bullock meanwhile is so up her own ass she's ostracized everyone around her in the Bureau, and she thinks that not caring who she steps on or alienates is the only way to succeed unaware that it's what's holding her back.

At this stage I don't even recall the plot of the film.  The characters, though, were strong and enjoyable.  Bullock is a likeable actress who routinely appears in terrible, treacly roles, so it's nice to see here here able to let loose, and next to the improv machine that is McCarthy she does manage to keep up, though at the same time it seems that McCarthy holds back in order for her to do so.  The Heat is a pleasing film, but unessential.  There are mentions of how it should be important, both being a comedy and a buddy-cop film that stars two female leads, and that it was successful it is important, but beyond the gender spin there's nothing that stands out here.  That said, were there to be a The Heat 2, I would be game for it.


Ah, the Ben Affleck career revitalizer, the Oscar-winning film for which he was snubbed as best director with much ballyhoo.  The "based on a true story" film that equally, controversially omitted large swathes of truth from its true story.  The film that turned it's catch phrase against itself from "Argo fuck yourself" to "Argo, fuck yourself".

I watched Argo (2012, d. Ben Affleck) after all the awards, acclaim, and backlash had already subsided, and I went into it being firmly in its corner, but as the film progressed, it slowly eroded my good favour.  Argo isn't a terrible film, but it's a burdened one.  The weight of being an Oscar-winning film puts it under a much finer microscope, and it can't stand up to that kind of scrutiny.  Beyond the hoopla, it has some definite moments and great intensity at times, but it takes such liberties with an incredible true story that it turns it into yet another dull Hollywood film.

The cast is indeed uniformly excellent (although the non-Hispanic Affleck's vanity casting of himself as the lead is a bit of a sour note) and the film looks great, but when the story descends into its final act of bullshit, with the operation in jeopardy because of a ringing phone, and jeeps chasing down a plane on the runway, it's like all the already loosened threads just let go.  It's such a hack final act, one that betrays the true story for the hoariest fiction, it's kind of inexcusable.  That it was even considered for an Oscar, nevermind winning one, was a genuine shock.

As David points out in his review the film almost altogether excises Canada's role in The Canadian Caper, or at least criminally diminishes it.  Equally it omits some of the background of where Argo, the fake film within the film, came from.  There's a Kickstarted documentary about the story that became Argo (originally an adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light) that looks very interesting, and probably a lot less frustrating than this major motion picture.


I saw The Station Agent (2003, d. Thomas McCarthy) back when it was first released on DVD and loved it completely.  In the years since my only real takeaway was how awesome Peter Dinklage is (a fact that the world at large has come to know) but beyond that the finer details of the story or its characters had escaped me.  A re-watch was long overdue.

The film more than holds up a decade later.  McCarthy has an assured style and pace to the film, a light drama about three lost people.  Dinklage is Finn, an insular train enthusiast who works in a model train shop.  When the owner of the shop dies, he leaves Finn his small plot of land which happens to house an abandoned rail station.  Finn, with little to tie him down, moves in.  Out front is Joe (Bobby Carnavale) who commutes in from Jersey, keeping his ailing father's food truck running.  Outgoing and energetic, he's bored of the small town hicks he has to interact with, and with Finn he finds someone more interesting to (attempt to) pal around with.  The duo become a trio when Finn is almost run over (twice) by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a self-employed artist living at her summer cottage following the dissolution of her marriage after the death of their child.  There's a lot of baggage these people carry in their hesitant friendship with one another, and it constantly threatens to divide them.

The Station Agent is ultimately it is a film about making friends and being a friend, and how much it can mean for lonely people to have someone to relate to.  Finn, Joe and Olivia are all outsiders to the town, but at the same time it's not like the feel they belong anywhere else either.  There are other forces in play, like redneck townies, a young latchkey girl Cleo who follows Finn as he walks the tracks, and a teenaged and pregnant librarian girl who's sweet on Finn but obviously having a crisis of her own.  The cast is phenomenal, including an amazing array of supporting players like Michelle Williams, John Slatterly, Jo Lo Truglio and Richard Kind.  McCarthy came out of this as a definite find, and his follow-up, The Visitor is a bit more difficult to watch but equally rewarding (I still need to see Win Win...I'll add it to the Netflix queue).


Speaking of Netflix, I would have never found this Masterpiece Contemporary feature, Page Eight (2011, d. David Hare) were it not for Netflix's bot suggestion (likely a result of watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).  What a great little British spy film, a TV movie but with a stellar cast.  Bill Nighy is the lead, as a career MI5 agent late in the game.  He's been through everything, and his handler, played by Michael Gambon, who is also his best friend (who also married his ex-wife, the great Alice Krige) dies suddenly, leaving him a rather incendiary document that details illegal CIA operations and the British Prime Minister's complicit knowledge of them.

It's an intriguing modern spy story, where the system looks in on itself and finds its own morals, standards and practices lacking, and the lengths that those in power will go to both hold power and destroy their opposition, all in the name of democracy supposedly.  Beyond just the compelling story there's also an intriguing character drama here.  Nighy's still obviously affectionate towards his ex-wife, he's got a strained relationship with his successful artist daughter, and the cautious flirtation with his neighbour (Rachel Weisz) has him questioning whether or not she's all she appears to be.

Going rogue, to steer clear of any systemic corruption, Nighy cautiously navigates a world he once new well, but has changed wildly since he was at his peak (I love seeing Nighy at a computer, obviously he's been trained how to use one, but he hunts-and-pecks as he types) and leaves him unsupported and exposed.  Nighy still has contacts, however, which includes Ewen Bremner providing yet another ace cameo.

I would love to see more Johnny Worricker stories.  Modern day espionage starring a seasoned veteran, not playing action hero but instead exploring serious intrigue is sorely lacking.


Looping back in on my comments about The Heat, 21 Jump Street (2011, d. Phil Lord and Chris Miller) is a buddy cop movie that doubles as a teen comedy and triples as a genre spoof and quadruples as a TV remake brought to the big screen.   Even with all that, it's almost the same film as The Heat in terms of tone and dynamic, though it's twisting of its source material and genre skewering elevate it somewhat.

Channing Tatum really comes out in this role as a likeable, vulnerable and charming meathead, while Jonah Hill sheds a lot of his more bracing and annoying character traits to equally provide an accessible and likeable character.  The plot pulls things along, but the film is smartly more an exploration of the characters and their on-again/off-again antagonistic relationship with one another.  Tatum was Hill's bully in high school, the popular jock taking pains to put down the nerd at any opportunity.  When they come face to face at the Police academy, they realize that the physical limitations of one and the ineptitude of the other could be to each other's advantage, and a friendship is born.  But when they're enrolled in the revitalized Jump Street program to suss out crime in high schools, their roles are reversed, with Hill playing the popular kid and Tatum hanging with the nerds.  Naturally they come to blows over this dynamic shift but equally have more sympathy for each other's past.

Directors Lord and Miller are personal favourites but their forte truly is in cartoons.  Clone High, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and the Lego Movie have all allowed them to exercise their very specific sense of humour with rapid paced quips, site gags, and an unreal physicality.  This, their first live-action production, finds various "Lord and Miller" moments seeded throughout, but not nearly in the same volume as their gag-machine animated efforts.  Their decision to focus on characters is perhaps the wiser one, and they seem to favour retaining improvised moments rather than structured comedy, which is perhaps partly a result of Hill's more extensive creative involvement as producer and scriptwriters.  The problem is perhaps there's too much story and too much improvisation making the film seem overlong and overstaying its welcome.  It's a bit of an exhausting effort, even though it's truly enjoyable throughout.  A sequel was inevitable, yet not altogether unwelcome.  Hopefully with Lord and Miller's "Lego Movie" success they manage to have a even more of their comedic voice injected into the picture.

What I should note most resoundingly about both 21 Jump Street and The Heat is that I have no standout gag I was left with.  In both I enjoyed the characters tremendously but for comedy features, there should be quotable lines and set pieces that stand out, but nothing comes to mind.

We Agree: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2014, Joe/Anthony Russo (TV including Community, Happy Endings & Arrested Development) -- cinema

It is only appropriate I follow Graig's up with mine.

We (we western first worlders) live in an age where EVERYTHING is on display. Before movies are released, we get boat loads of trailers and clips and blog articles written by fans, speculators and people paid to say what they say. We get crappy cams for those who have left cinemas behind. We get review blogs & tweets and FB status updates telling us about the movie seconds after it has hit the cinema. We have access to source material and scripts and rumors and hints and misdirection. It is hard to avoid knowing all there is to know about a movie, before we even see it.

So, it was hard not to know what this movie was going to be about, the title saying it all, the trailers filling it in for those who have not read the comics. I knew the comic storyline, probably having grilled Kent about it before I downloaded the entire extended series. The gritty story swaps rah-rah superheroics for almost-noir gritty espionage drama. Cap, often lost in memories of the 40s, remembers how he lost Bucky.  Well, at least his Bucky. Part of the detailed story reminds us of how many Captain Americas, how many Buckys there were. But it always draws back to one Cap, one Bucky and their separation near the end of the war, with the death of James Buchanan Barnes. Even after the thawing, this is haunting Cap. And then, suddenly and terribly, Bucky is back. And Cap is obsessed with finding out who and how.

Even with all the trappings of super villains and S.H.I.E.L.D. this is an action-spy story.  Its a convoluted story, as all wide reaching comic arcs are, of Hydra and the Red Skull and a Russian General who was part of a program that used the differently frozen Bucky Barnes as a twisted assassin. Only one arc of the story is about Cap finding this out, and dealing with, as it extends into the Civil War series (the US demands superheroes become registered, most rebel, branded villains) and the death of Captain America. Much of the central story is how the two tortured friends deal with what drew them together again, their loyalty to each other.

So, it was kind of amusing that I could be exposed to all the Internet can give me, not shying away from spoilers, and yet not get that this was not really a fully, wholly Winter Soldier story. Bucky is only one element of this incredible plotline that shakes up the world building they seem to have just got around to establishing in the movies --- that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a new centre of protection for the world.  Hell, how many movies did they spend time inserting scenes of Ultimates Nick Fury and establishing that these solo movies would become The Avengers? And once you bring in the long slow burn of the TV series, you get, well, you get WOW. The Winter Soldier himself was just one piece, albeit a finely crafted cog in this machine. And I didn't catch it.  Yay me. Or boo me?

The action is outstanding. Even with our viewing suffering the dull, dimmed screen of not-3D, the precision of this movie stood out. The establishing battle scenes for Cap are exquisite. Slam, pow, clunk, bang full of weight and force that had me cringing for those poor sods with no super soldier skin or even body armor. Never pays to be a mook. Captain America leaves much of the bigger explosions for the other Marvel franchises, as this is a hands-on character. Sure, we crash some heli-carriers, but that is the climax of the movie.  Most of this movie is a punch-up, shield throwing & gun fight.

The story is an interesting flip of the tables from previous movies where they established that the world needed a team of super powered beings independent of other nations' armed forces. Considering they saved the world from an alien invasion, they seem to have free reign and Fury is running with it, building kill-you-from-the-sky laser guns that when combined with a Person of Interest establish-who-the-Bad-Guys-are AI makes even Cap queasy.

He really does represent the true ideal of American values, those that are what the world want the US to aspire to, instead of the reality we live with. His boyscout ideals even melt the hardened heart of Black Widow, who I was rather underwhelmed by in this movie... literally not finding Scarlett J attractive at all with that unflattering hair cut. And by heart melting, I don't mean swooning, I mean she realizes this is a man to be friends with, to be loyal to. And once she has earned it, she really sees the value. He also has the support of a good, loyal soldier in Sam Wilson and his Falcon flight armor. The interactions between the two unadulterated Good Guy conversations and I really took to this character, having always been rather meh about his comic books persona. He and Cap agree on how soldiers should support their country and get along rather well.

The movie rounds out by the surprise reveal that I was already expecting because I watched the TV series before the movie -- hail Hydra. S.H.I.E.L.D. was not only infiltrated from the inside but could be said to have had a Hydra agenda all along. This leaves long running ramifications on the playing field, which will definitely affect every movie after. The Avengers will have to act independently of their origins and will probably suffer the suspicions of the world forever. There are still some good agents out there, but what do they represent? Who do they work for? Who can they trust?  Next movie now, please !!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2014, d. Joe and Anthony Russo - in theatre

The previous Captain America film was, to me, disappointing, particularly in establishing Captain America as an intriguing and exciting superhero.  It wasn't until Joss Whedon's Avengers that Chris Evan's Cap came to life (I think the man-out-of-time aspect of the character is probably his most appealing facet and "First Avenger" seemed very much a prologue to that element).

It was Ed Brubaker's Captain America comic book run -- which took the character deep into espionage and political intrigue territory -- that I became interested in the character, roughly 30 years into my comics reading hobby.  That Brubaker's work would be inspiration for the next Captain America movie was a thrilling proposition.  Things seemed to be falling into place so very nicely leading into its production:  The Avengers finally put to screen a movie that felt like a comic book story; Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 showed that the studio knew how to follow-up on the events that preceded it without retracing steps or feeling redundant; and Marvel's talent recruiter never seems to fail them....  The hiring of the television directing tandem of Joe and Anthony Russo was perhaps an unusual (risky even) choice to helm a 160 million dollar blockbuster, but any fan of Community could attest to their action chops based on the inspired vision their paintball episodes had on an exceptionally modest budget.  With Brubaker's monumental Winter Soldier storyline being the backbone of the next picture (perhaps the best Captain America story arc in the character's history) this seemed to be a sure-fire success.

As production went along, with casting announcements (Robert Redford, Howard Mackie, Scarlett Johansson, the return of Sebastian Stan), set photos, and ultimately the teasers and trailers, anticipation was riding high, (especially given my wife's overwhelming fondness for the Winter Soldier arc and character).  In fact, expectations rode so high, that the chance of failure (or disappointment at least) grew with each passing day leading to the film's release.  The absolute best compliment that I can give this film is that it lived up to expectations without playing into them. 

The Russo brothers and Marvel Studios have put together a massive blockbuster to rival The Avengers, but without any mimicry or repetition.  This is a character-focused story (multiple characters in fact) feeling a part of the larger Marvel movie serial, yet contained into an exceptionally tight and thoroughly intriguing narrative.  They've taken the Winter Soldier story, found the useful (and essential) beats of it, but crafted a unique story out of it that builds and destroy's Steve Roger's world (his personal world and the Marvel movie universe) in equal measure.  Even having read (and loved) the comics that were this film's springboard, there were so many genuine surprises in this film, and for a film to surprise a somewhat jaded, seen-it-all viewer, that's an impressive feat.

I'm writing this review with about 10 days' distance from watching the picture, but in that time what sticks out most to me is the fight sequences, the absolutely incredible action choreography that sets a new bar for how these things can go.  Captain America's bulldozing of the terrorists aboard a captured SHIELD vessel is a beautiful display of that character's abilities that neither of his previous appearances really captured effectively.  Captain America is an elite soldier, with super strength and an indestructible vibranium shield, and he's able to use his skills, his strength and his weapons in unison in a way that nobody else could.  That's on display in this sequence, but unlike so many films which make such a point out of highlighting a superhero's specific skills and abilities, here it's all happening in fluidity, not making a point, just showing the character in his natural element.

This leads into the Batroc fight, which pits Cap against a Savate expert (played by French Canadian MMA fighter Georges St. Pierre) and they tussle in a fight that's like few seen on screen before.  It's assuredly choreographed, but it gets away from two cinematic fight sequence trends: the Paul Greengrass-style quick-cut shaky-cam fight editing, and the Martial Arts ballet that the Matrix and Crouching Tiger introduced to Hollywood.  This fighting feels more improvisational (though it naturally could not be) like the characters are in the moment of their fight, not having danced the dance countless times before.

Beyond that there's sequence after impressive sequence of Cap, Black Widow, and even Nick Fury that just stun the audience.  Fury's pinned into a no-escape situation but still finds a way through a shower of gunfire that not only never gets tedious but ratchets up in intensity with every passing minute.  There's a sequence where Widow, Falcon and Cap are targeted by the Winter Soldier and company, and Scarlett Johansson goes over the edge of a skyway.  She uses the grappling rope from her wrist gauntlet to slow her descent and swing into safety.  Like Cap's steamrolling on the SHIELD ship, this is such an innocuous yet perfect use of Black Widow's skills and accessories, not gratuitous in any way.

The story of the film builds quite nicely, but revealing the events would be spoilery and they're genuinely a lot of fun (including the brilliant return of a villain from the previous film, playing with comics canon in a wonderful way).  The character building is phenomenal, establishing the dynamic between Steve Rogers and his costars (Widow, Falcon, Fury and Winter Soldier) are continual highlights of the film, just as great as the fighting.  There's a few nitpicks that I have though, particularly how Cap and Widow travel so quickly and (somewhat) effortlessly between locations, and the final conceit of how Cap and company are to stop the bad guy's master plans is an unfortunate use of conventional cinematic end-game plotting (we have to change this thing on all three ships or it won't work...) that could have been quite easily subverted and ratcheting the stakes up even a little further in its final moments.  Alas, they're minor misgivings, but ones that hold the film back from its near perfection as a superhero/espionage romp to rival or even best the biggest of Bond films.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Drinking Buddies

2013, Joe Swanberg (V/H/S) -- Netflix

I admit it, the reason this movie caught my attention was that it focused on people working at a craft brewery. I like craft beer, as anyone who knows me already knows. But it wasn't that. It was because this was a slice of life movie that I could possibly have some connection to, even if it was just the tenuous connection to enjoying a tasty beer. But is the movie really about beer? No, not really. Its about relationships, as I said, a slice of the life of a couple of people connected by where they work and what they enjoy.

Kate (Olivia Wilde; startlingly attractive in this jeans & tshirt role) and Luke (Jake Johnson; all 'hipster' beardy and not New Girl at all) are work friends who are obviously attracted to each other. But neither has said it out loud and both are already in relationships. He is on his way to being married to a girl (Anna Kendrick) he seems to be straining to be compatible with and she is dating a music producer (Ron Livingston), but it seems a placeholder relationship.  They (all four) make the mistake of spending a weekend at a cottage together and that only highlights exactly how compatible Kate and Luke are. It also just ends up straining the friendship(s) when it comes this close to being said out loud.

This is a throwback (not thursday) indie style movie I would have really really enjoyed in the 90s, when I was actually closer to their age. The locations are atypical, the people familiar (change a few lines and this is Toronto) and the dialogue is improvised -- the actors were allowed to build their characters out as they saw fit. The improvisation shows, sometimes annoyingly so, but most often it just works.  As for the beer, it played a part in all of their lives and probably contributed to the uninhibited emotional reactions that flared in key scenes. But considering that American movie & TV culture currently almost always has a character with a whisky or martini in their hands, it was nice to see it replaced with a pint of dark ale.

P.S. Despite the tag on the poster, not a comedy. And I am rather annoyed they shaved Jake Johnson so you would recognize him. It really changes the character's look.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Snowpiercer

2013, Joon-ho Bong (The Host) -- download

Snowpiercer is a Korean science fiction movie based on a French comic series from the 1980s called Le Transperceneige.  I have no idea how, but it has to be connected to another French series, novels this time, called  La Compagnie des Glaces, which was, incidentally, made into a terrible Canadian TV series called Grand Star. I say the two are connected because of the basic premise behind both -- it is the future and the world is covered by snow and ice. In the former, a single train traverses the planet containing the only surviving members of the human race. In the latter, the survivors are hiding inside massive cities that are connected by train systems, and yes, the trains play a big part in both the stories. The weird thing is that I have no idea why I know about both stories, not having any recollection of having seen translations of either stories. Either way, we have a Korean movie, that might as well be an American movie for all of its stars are white and English speaking but for two. But Bong Joon-Ho directed it, so its his and his country's.

So, yes the premise is a train filled with the survivors of the human race. They all piled into the train when a chemical introduced to the atmosphere to deal with global warming goes horribly wrong. It freezes the planet instead. That was only 17 years ago, a single generation. But the train has already evolved into a very twisted culture of poor, starving people at the back of the train and rich, well fed & clothed people at the front of the train. In the middle cars are most of the support structure, including water filtration, power, massive aquariums and food preparation. Every couple of years the poor rise up and try to get to the head of the train -- they always fail. As Curtis (Chris Evans, definitely not playing Captain America) has grown into a man, he has been formulating a plan to get further than any other rebellion. Enter the viewer.

This movie is incredibly well done, both at connecting to American audiences with their tropes and characterizations, as well as being true to South Korean cinema, much like The Host did as a monster movie. But it also wants to be a concept film, like those we expect from Terry Gilliam or the Wachowskis.  But I couldn't quite get past the conceit that these people are fighting for humanity. Ummm, if this train holds all remaining human beings, then STOP KILLING EACH OTHER. It might be reaching for a Noah connection, striving to say that the only way for the human race to survive is to start over, but as we well know, that only leads to inbreeding. Still, the movie looks good and flows well and I will definitely be seeing it in the cinema, should it ever appear in original format.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

2014, d. James Bobin -- in theatre

I'm an unabashed Muppets fan.  They trigger something very deep within me such that not only do I excuse the hacky jokes, the overt sentimentality and the evermore dated nature of their very being, but I embrace it all.  That being said, I understand full well how, in our lifelike computer generated entertainment culture, the Muppets seem remarkably limited on-screen, low-tech (no tech, actually) and that their appeal outside of wonton nostalgia is a challenge for the kids who didn't grow up with Kermit and the gang on their TVs or their dinner wear or their lunchbox.

The first movie traded in on the idea of this fading nostalgia exceptionally well, and by confronting it so fully, it's afforded the Muppets (as a commodity) some renewed relevance, allowing it to move past the mustiness and shake off the cobwebs.  In the wake of the Jason Segel/Nicholas Stoller/James Bobin "relaunch" the Muppets unfortunately didn't trade in on the film's success as much as they should have.  A one hour special during the Montreal Just For Laughs comedy festival, a wickedly confusing Lady Gaga/Muppets holiday special on Netflix, and the odd appearance on late night television and awards shows.  Strangely the viral videos that had launched the Muppets into renewed relevance in the first place started to slow in the film's wake.  It's almost as if the focus was all put towards doing a sequel.

Muppets Most Wanted picks up literally at the end of the previous Muppets feature with body doubles standing in for Segel and Amy Adams shot from behind.  Embracing their ability to pierce the fourth wall without utterly destroying it, they address that the previous film had wrapped, all the "adoring fans" seen in The Muppets closing number were all extras, and their triumphant return the previous film postulated wasn't their reality.  They then notice that one camera is still trained on them, which means that they must be doing a sequel.  Cue the film's first musical number "We're Doing A Sequel".

The Muppets exist in a strange reality. Though they never break the illusion that they're puppets, or acknowledge their operators, beyond that everything else is fair game.  The "story" of the Muppets is a non-linear and equally nonsensical one, which sees them performing as characters in films like Muppet Treasure Island or A Muppet Christmas Carol, and equally performing as themselves in The Muppets Take Manhattan or Muppets From Space, but this isn't their reality either.  They acknowledge at least half a dozen times that the preceding film was indeed a film, and not their actual reality, but at the same time they carry forth that same reality into Most Wanted of the struggling group of weirdos and anthropomorphic animals performing for a society that once-but-no-longer cares for them.

This leads them under the sway of Ricky Gervais' Dominic Badguy who promises them a successful European tour, offering much and undermining Kermit at every turn.  Dominic is partners with the world's most dangerous frog, Constantine, a thief who just escaped from a Russian gulag and who happens to look  just like Kermit, but with a mole on his face.  The scheming duo manage to replace Constantine for Kermit, who gets escorted off to the Russian gulag under the watchful eye of Tina Fey's doting warden, Nadia.  Then, while on tour, Constantine and Dominic (whose criminal nom-de-plum is The Lemur) use the cover of the Muppet Show to bust into museums and vaults neighbouring the theatres they perform in.  This brings together FBI agent Sam the Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell in a fantastic Clouseau-inspired performance) in an awkward partnership to follow their trail, the only real hurdle to solving the crime being Napoleon's excessively liberal European work schedule.

The comic conceit of the film, that this thick- and unruly-accented frog could believably replace Kermit is probably it's most delightful aspect, is a great use of the classic absurdity of mistaken identity.  Yet the script twists it wildly with the cast of the Gulag (including, prominently, Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement and Danny Trejo) recognizing rather quickly that Kermit is not Constantine.  Meanwhile, with promises of creative freedom and sellout shows (and giving them all what they want), the Muppets buy into Constantine-as-Kermit.

Constantine is the film's biggest treasure.  Despite my affection for the previous Muppets feature, I found its new character, Walter, a bit dull, so it pleases me that this film's new Muppet is so delightful.  Constantine's butchering of the English language, his terrible Kermit impersonation (which he believes is spot on), his elaborate but passionless wooing of Piggy, and his overbearing relationship with his Number 2 are ceaselessly entertaining.  Thanks to the work of Matt Vogel, Constantine may look exactly like Kermit (with a mole) but his physicality is altogether different and it really builds a new character beyond just the voice.

Flight of the Conchord's Bret McKenzie deservedly won an Oscar for one of his original songs from the previous film ("Man or Muppet").  My daughter has played the soundtrack endlessly in the intervening years and (beyond the unfortunate placement of Starship's "We Built This City (on Rock and Roll)") it's a great soundtrack with fabulous original and Muppet-ized songs.  The new soundtrack tops it.  McKenzie's 6 new songs are each infectious gems, better in context, but great on their own.  They genre hop from ragtime to doo wop to soul culminating in the over-the-top ballad "Something So Right" featuring Celine Dion.  The songs manage to hit the irreverent humour the Conchords are known for but also carry the story of Muppets Most Wanted forward and even tossing some emotion and character development in there.  They are a feat and should likely net McKenzie another Oscar.

I should note that my four year old reacted rather negatively to the film.  There was a lot of crying and a general anxiousness as she watched the movie.  It was largely a result of Constantine, she said, and I think more than the performance of the character it was the effectively intense score from Christophe Beck (another little girl in front of us was also notably frightened by the film), leading to two restless nights.  So this one, strangely, may not be for all young viewers.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Robocop

2014, José Padilha -- cinema

I admit, like Graig, I have no real attachment to the first movie. In fact, I remember seeing it in the theatre and being somewhat pissed off by its comedic overtones.  I would have seen it the year after highschool (yes, Graig and I have an age difference) and I don't think I much appreciated satire. For me, it was just adding useless goofiness and over the top violence. So, that said, I am not one of the usual of-age geeks who looks back at the original with a don't-touch-my-memories nostalgia.

So, we probably know the basic story.  It's there, in pop culture, whether you saw or enjoyed the original. Hot shot cop is taken down by bad guys and evil mega-corp decides to turn him into the perfect cop via cyborg modification. Of course, in becoming a half-human, half-machine he loses his humanity until... love & family dedication brings it back to him. And this one follows the script, but replaces the heavy handed satire with NeoCon commentary connecting it with the war(s) in the Middle East.

What did it for me were the performances. Seriously. Even now, after the blush of the movie has long worn off, I remember how the actors performed. I have always liked Joel Kinnaman, since I saw him in The Killing. He has a slightly scuzzy exterior meant to play under-cover cops but with an intense sincerity. He carries off the brain-in-a-jar depression quite well. I assumed Michael Keaton would be a toss away role but really, he carried the movie as the likeable horrible business mogul who rocked the casual business wear. And Jackie Earle Haley, who is always brilliant, is just so precisely spot on as the security head rather peeved they are replacing his perfect robots with this icky fleshy thing. These performances, supported brilliantly by Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L Jackson (not Laurence Fishburne) and Jay Baruchel round out a movie that isn't just about a tin man who finds his heart, but about the heart itself.

Bonus paragraph. Kent and I noted as we came out that the final battle scene was so very truncated, and perfectly so. The movie was not about the Boss Battle, but the hero's journey to that scene where his humanity wins out over his programming. Its a little heavy handed in its metaphor but like the movie's central plot, he is not all combat model, and thus neither is the movie.