Friday, January 22, 2016

I Saw This!! (2015 Unreviewed) - summery blockbusterish

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, four films from the Summer of 2015

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Ex Machina (2015, d. Alex Garland) - in theatre
Jurassic World (2015, d. Colin Trevorrow) - in theatre
Trainwreck (2015, d. Judd Apatow) - in theatre
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015, d. Guy Ritchie) - in theatre

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A science fiction film starring Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac that I've seen five times?  Yeah, it's called Star Wars: Episode 7: The Force Awakens... I don't really need to see it a sixth, but I most certainly will, and probably countless times beyond that.  There's this other scifi film starring those two actors (much more prominently, I might add), a wonderfully tense psychological drama called Ex Machina that I definitely need to see again.

The crux of the film finds a reclusive billionaire tech genius Nathan (Isaac) pulling from his vast stable of employees (via an in-company lottery) a young, intelligent designer Caleb (Gleeson) to his remote estate for what promises to be a life (and potentially world) changing week-long private engagement of the minds.  What Caleb finds out is that he's to be one half of a Turing test (the testing of a machine's ability to think or behave in a unquestionably human capacity), as he's introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander) a robot in a sleek female form with a decidedly beautiful face. 

As the tests persist, questions arise as to who is controlling the test, is it Caleb, or Ava, or is it Nathan behind the scenes.  The more Caleb engages with Ava, the more it seems she passes the test, to the point that he starts developing feelings towards her...whether romantic or sympathetic...either way, he begins projecting human emotions upon her, as he perceives human emotions emanating from her.  But Nathan is a wild card in the process.  How much is he manipulating things, not just the tests, but Ava and Caleb as well. 

The end result of the film isn't some "shock twist" meant to put it in that category of film, but rather yet another reveal that is meant for us to question what we saw and the motivations of those involved.  The film wisely never settles on conclusive answers but provides so many clues, overt and subtle alike, that one can make up their own minds about what transpired and not be wrong.  But the seeds of doubt about what's really going on is the true genius of Alex Garland's directorial debut.  Garland's written many a great features, some outright, others in a cult fashion, but this is nothing short of masterful.  The cast is primarily the three leads in a secluded environment (with Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko as Nathan's mistreated, foreign help) and are all beyond excellent.

This is the film that gave us this, so we should be forever grateful:


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I've come to learn that amongst many Millennials Jurassic Park is their Star Wars, by which I mean it's the series of genre films with which they have strongest attachment because of their childhood association with it.  Star Wars was virtually a dead entity when Jurassic Park emerged, having been 10 years since the last film, and many years since the dissolution of the toy line and comic books.  The time was ripe for a blockbuster film that catered to both kids and parent, presenting a world never seen before.

Over 20 years later, Jurassic World arrived in theatres like a freight train run amok, an unstoppable juggernaut at the international box office that would be challenged by only one other film (unsurprisingly, it's Star Wars).

I'm quite clearly a Star Wars kid, and a bit of a fanatic at heart.  That doesn't mean there's not room in my fandom for dinosaurs, but the truth is I've never made the space.  I don't hate Jurassic Park (or The Lost World, its sequel) but I care so little about it I never bothered with the third movie, and actually had planned to skip World altogether.  It was only a childless weekend and a need for utterly mindless entertainment to distract from work-related stress (and a heap of affection for @PrattPrattPratt) that brought me to the new Jurassic age. 

And rather mindless entertainment it is, but enjoyably so.  It strives for a commentary on how terrible events always tend to repeat themselves when money is the primary motivation, and perhaps a restatement of the old JP condemnation of the hubris of man.  It tries for these statements rather minimally.  Overall it's more interested in cool things happening with dinosaurs and displaying some protofuturism.

The further I get away from this film the less it matters to me and the less I really have to say about any of it.  Chris Pratt made a surprisingly convincing badass, Bryce Dallas Howard was fine in a role that was very confused about what it wanted to say about this woman (running in heels, people), and the kids...well, the film could have done without them as they served little purpose in the end.  I most enjoyed Irrfan Khan's billionaire park owner who was unafraid to get his hands dirty, and B.D. Wong's minimal part as nefarious scientist/middleman was about as close to intrigue as the film got (obviously setting up the sequel).  Vincent D'Onofrio does "creepy, sweaty guy" practically every other role, so he's naturally pretty good at it, while Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus provide out of left field, unnecessary comic relief.  Oh, then there's Judy Greer in her second of three "tertiary mom roles" of the summer (see also Tomorrowland and Ant-Man). 

Like the other Jurassic films I've seen, I was entertained, but I have little desire to see it again.

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So powerful is Amy Schumer's voice imprint on Trainwreck that I completely forgot who directed it.  I mean, I knew Judd Apatow was involved in getting Schumer to writer her own script for a feature but I forgot that Apatow had actually directed it.  This is an Amy Schumer movie, not an Apatow picture.  If that means anything to you.

Schumer has exploded in recent years as a comedian and comic performer thanks to her sketch comedy series Inside Amy Schumer.  It's a series that treads water in crude vulgarity just as much as observational irony and comedic sincerity.  Schumer wrestles with her pseudo feminism on the show, wanting to bring issues about women in comedy and entertainment as well as systemic sexism to the forefront but also sometimes unassredly playing into a ditzy blonde role.

With Trainwreck, Schumer reinvents the romantic leading woman as well as the romantic comedy, creating a tremendously funny (and occasionally touching) movie about the confusing and complex nature of love and sex.  It's a film that points out to a barely exaggerated degree just how much we overanalyze relationships, and the exterior and interior pressures we put on them.

Schumer, playing Amy, was raised by her father to believe monogamy is a false concept, and in her mid-30's somewhat enjoys her life of frivolous casual encounters and open relationships, with the lens projecting nary an impulse of slut shaming or finger pointing.  It's not judging her actions in isolation.  The film doesn't say there's anything wrong with her behavior until Amy herself acknowledges that she feels something is wrong with her world view, and starts to examine her behavior.

Trainwreck doesn't so much as subvert cliches as avoid them.  There's a formula for romantic comedies and while this follows the ABCs, it's all MQXs outside of them.  The cast is ridiculously winning, with Bill Hader making an unusual but agreeable romantic leading man, especially with LeBron James as his wingman (James doesn't just steal the show, but runs it to the net and dunks it).  Not to be outdone, Pro wrestler John Cena puts in a shockingly against-type performance playing Amy's sensitive, casual boyfriend. The film bolsters Shumer's life with family: Colin Quinn as her ailing father, Brie Larson as her buckled down sister, and Mike Birbiglia as her so-square-it-hurts brother-in-law who plays step-dad to her nephew).  And so chameleonic is Tilda Swinton that it took more than half the film to realize she was Schumer's magazine mogul boss.

What Apatow brings to the movie is the smarts to not get in its way.  He allows for improvisation on the set, which assuredly results in some great comedy, but he also trusts the script, its structure, and its density to deliver not just a funny movie, but something relatable and tangible. Schumer's script is definitely a character study, not just a series of vignettes, allowing for a few quieter moments amidst its many, many laughs, and Apatow invests in them fully.  With his clout, he's been able to deliver a 2-hour comedy, once unheard of, now almost a mainstay in cinemas.  The terrible secret is few films ever earn that run time, but this one absolutely does.  2015's best comedy*

*right next to The Martian.**
** coff

(what's most remarkable is how Trainwreck managed to be marketed, in the summer, with only one poster!  Who does that in this day and age?)

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With the exception of the 60-something crowd, the property Man From U.N.C.L.E. holds no sway.  It hasn't stayed in the pop-culture conversation at all since it went off the air over 40 years ago.  Only fans of the superspy/espionage genre bring up its name with any familiarity. 
As a moderate fan of the superspy/espionage genre, I wrote about the original Man From U.N.C.L.E. pilot episode before, having acquired in late 2014 the complete series in a handy dandy briefcase-style box.  I managed to make it four episodes in before all the other pop culture of the time took priority over it, relegating the case to a top shelf to collect dust waiting patiently for some sick day binge watch.  That said, even in those four episodes I managed to become quite fond of the series already.  It's a 1960's superspy series that, at least in its first season, took itself seriously as a counterpart to the early Bond films.  Word is that in later seasons it steered more into the gadgets and broad villainy as Bond did, and then fell straight into Batman-style camp.

Guy Ritchie comes to the property with very little expectations set before it.  In fact, I'd wager to say the filmmaker comes with more expectations than the film matter.  Ritchie delivered massive successes with the Robert Downey Jr.-led Sherlock Holmes movies but those films, and his original pictures that surrounded it (Revolver, Rock'n'Rolla) didn't quite have the same panache, style, fun and cleverness as his sophomore effort, Snatch... a film which remains Ritchie's high watermark. 

With Snatch, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels before it, Ritchie was expected to be the next Quentin Tarantino, a student of film with a knack for witty banter and no shortage of ingenuity.  But Ritchie fell into a hole with Madonna and has been seemingly clawing his way back to filmmaking relevance ever since.  My expectation for the film was that it would find a happy medium between big-budgeted action of his Sherlock movies and his more quirky storytelling tendencies from his earliest films.  To be honest, he came pretty close.

The film takes place in the 1960's, hot in the middle of the cold war.  Superman Henry Cavill plays American super-agent Napoleon Solo, while Lone Ranger Armie Hammer plays Russia's top man Illya Kuryakin.  The two should be natural foes, and in fact the film opens up with a brilliant cat-and-mouse chase sequence between the two in East Berlin, but a plot by a third party to acquire and use nuclear weapons has force the two together, one-time only.  In between them is mechanic Gaby Teller (a most welcome second appearance from Alicia Vikander this summer) whose estranged father is somehow involved in the warhead exchange.

In this regard the film follows the TV show's format, finding the two agents helping out a civilian who must become part of the proceedings at their own risk.  Though Cavill, as the American character, is clearly the story's lead, the romantic subplot unusually (and I think smartly) occurs between Gaby and Illya, with Solo maintaining a rogue-ish playboy image.  The villain plot isn't quite as convoluted as a vintage James Bond, nor are the villains as colorful, but Bond movies are generally about a single agent making his way through tricky situations with wits and gadgets, while this film is more about two supposed foes learning to rely upon and trust each other.  It is a noticable difference in the execution of the two properties, though the distinction in story is a little harder to discern.

Ritchie does bring a fair amount of visual pop to the film, with eccentric split screening being the most notable flourish.  The 60's aesthetic is recaptured quite well though a modern lens, the mod style looking even more appealing than it probably did back then.  There seems to be a focus on practical action over big effects sequences, and though everything is executed well, it's really only the first sequence that stands out, and the final sequence doesn't quite feel satisfying.  I was hoping for a more engaging soundtrack (Snatch's song selection seemed integral to the emotional execution of the story) but nothing quite stands out in that fashion.

The trio of Cavill, Hammer and Vikander are winning, and the tense dynamic between Solo and Kuryakin was one of its best features.  But if The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had a main flaw it would be staging it as an origin story for the U.N.C.L.E. agency, rather than it already being an established thing.  It seemed to diminish a film called "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." when there was no U.N.C.L.E. for a man to be from.  I would love to see a follow-up from Ritchie and this crew, a little bigger, a little more eccentric.  While the latest Bond and Mission Impossible movies have managed to veer away from the super-seriousness of the Bourne movies, there's definitely room for a lighter, more retro action-espionage.