Star Trek Into Darkness(5/16/2013)

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I wouldn’t call myself a “trekkie.”  I don’t speak a word of the Klingon language, I’d never dream of attending a Star Trek convention, and I feel no compulsion to ever wear a Star Trek related costume in public.  All that said, I love me some Star Trek.  I’ve seen every episode of every Star Trek T.V. series and I’ve seen the every one of the Star Trek films multiple times.  And like many fans of the series I was hungry for some new Trek when J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009.  There hadn’t been a new Trek film since Star Trek: Nemesis bombed in 2002 and there hadn’t (and to date hasn’t) been any Trek on T.V. since the somewhat underrated “Star Trek: Enterprise” was cancelled in 2005.  And it’s that hunger which probably made Abrams’ Star Trek so disappointing to me.  I could acknowledge that it was an entertaining and fairly well made film, but it was also lacking in the two things that made the franchise special: smart science fiction and enduring characters.  I couldn’t get behind that film, but I did hold out hope that it had laid the groundwork for superior films to come even if it had to pander a bit in order to get a wider audience on board.  I’d like to say that Star Trek Into Darkness was the return to the Trek we all know and love, but for the most part it’s more of the same.

This sequel picks up a year or so after the events of the 2009 Star Trek and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) seems to have learned nothing since his battle with Nero.  He’s still cocky, arrogant, irresponsible, and the opposite of everything that a Starfleet Captain is supposed to be.  This attitude finally lands him in hot water when he blatantly disregards the Prime Directive while on an away mission. It looks like he’ll be demoted for that stunt, but then a former Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) carries out a terroristic attack on earth and then flees to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos.  Knowing that Kirk is the kind of captain who’s willing to get his hands dirty, a hawkish Starfleet Admiral named Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk’s rank and sends him to Kronos with one simple mission: exterminate Harrison with extreme prejudice.

The first Star Trek has a number of problems, and one of them is that it really stretches to contrive an excuse for Kirk to become the captain of the Enterprise in spite of his youth, inexperience, and reckless demeanor.  He was a far cry from the largely disciplined officer that William Shatner once played, but to some extent I was able to go along with this depiction if only because the film was an origin story and there was some promise that the events of the film would teach him a little humility.  Unfortunately, none of that growth seems to have carried over to this sequel. As the film opens Kirk is a completely irresponsible and adolescent fool and I wouldn’t trust him to manage a Burger King, much less a Starship.  It’s downright painful to watch this character behave like an absolute cock for much of the film’s first half.

To some extent, Kirk’s demeanor plays into a not-so-subtle 9-11/war on terror allegory that runs through the film.  Kirk is made to be a Bush-like cowboy who charges after a “terrorist” who’s hiding in a far-away and hostile territory.  Were this film released in 2005 that would have been a topical and interesting subtext, but in 2013 it just seems kind of dated and given that this allegory is pretty much the film’s only claim to intelligence it really rings pretty hollow.  Make no mistake: this is a summer action film pure and simple.  Anyone looking for a more thoughtful Star Trek film can keep waiting because this ain’t it.  That said, as an action movie, this mostly holds its own.  There are a number of above average set-pieces in the film including a fun opening sequence which feels like an episode of the original series encapsulated into fifteen minutes.

I was always fond of the way that J.J. Abrams shot the first Star Trek (even if some people feel the need to reduce it to its incorporation of lens flare), and he continues that style here.  In many ways these Star Trek films look and feel like they’re being filmed by someone who means business.  The film has also addressed some of the issues I had with that previous film, especially that film’s prescient for idiotic comedy relief, but for every step forward that this film makes there’s at least a half of a step backwards. My hopes that this sequel would be an improvement over the previous film were misplaced.  At the end of the day I’m right back to where I was on the first film, having to acknowledge that it’s a good enough film when compared to most summer blockbusters while kind of hating what it does to the iconic franchise that birthed it.

*** out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Harry Potter: The Columbus Years

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It would be an understatement to say that the Harry Potter franchise was one of the most profitable enterprises in the history of capitalism.  Even if you ignore the films, the books alone have been successful enough to make author J.K. Rowlings a billionaire.  In fact, the series as a whole has sold upwards of 450 million copies and when they were at their peak during the early 2000s they were almost inescapable.  They were so popular among kids that multiple think-pieces were written about their potential to usher in a new era of increased literacy.  They were the touchstone of a generation… and I didn’t read a single one of them.

It would be fair to say that my disinterest in the Harry Potter books was rooted in pretty much the same sentiment that kept me away from Pixar movies: I thought I’d outgrown that shit.  I was ten years old when the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, but the series didn’t really catch on until 1999, when I was twelve.  For most kids that might have still been in the target age range, but not for me.  Even when I was really young I was always restless about having to read “baby books,” and I was really excited to move on to more challenging fare.  That was partly because “young adult” fiction was not the semi-respectable thing that it is today, in fact most of it was straight-up crap.  I mostly look back on the monthly paperback series of the era like “Goodbumbs” and “The Animorphs” with a certain degree of disgust.  They were crass moneymaking schemes not too far removed from the Power Rangers and the fucking Pokemon: garbage that you couldn’t pay an adult to read but which kids lapped up because they didn’t know any better.  Beyond that the best you could do was get your hands on a Newberry Award winner or two like Hatchet or The Giver.

By the time I was twelve I was reading well enough to get into “mature literature” like Jurassic Park and Carrie and I wasn’t going to reduce myself to reading the “drival” that Scholastic was peddling to a new generation of susceptible kids.  As such, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published at pretty much the exact right time for me to miss it, and I can’t say that I really thought I was missing anything, and that attitude carried forth when it they began making them into movies.  For the next decade I’d see these big productions show up in theaters every other year or so and greet them with complete apathy.  Critics liked them, but didn’t love them; they weren’t “shoved down my throat” like the Pixar movies were and I’ve never been under the impression that I had to defend my disinterest in them the way I have with other family properties.

But by the end of the series’ run I began to see the movies in a new light.  The trailers started looking more exciting, the movies started earning PG-13 ratings, and all the talk of “the series growing up with its fans” started to make sense.  I might have jumped in at one point or another, but by the time I started to finally get interested the prospect of catching up was already kind of daunting, especially considering that almost everyone seemed to not have many nice things to say about the series’ first two installments: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (AKA Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  These first films were directed by a guy named Chris Columbus, the man behind some of the most soullessly mediocre family movies of the 80s and 90s.  He was most famous for directing the Home Alone movies, but he’s also responsible in some capacity for such middle-of-the-road comedies as Mrs. Doubtfire, Jingle All the Way, and Stepmom.  Not all of those movies are terrible or anything, but none of them really suggest that he’s the right choice to mount something that’s supposed to be this big.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Sometimes when I go a really long time without seeing a popular movie I’ll still end up hearing so much about it that when I finally do check out the film in question it will feel like I’ve already seen it by proxy.  There was some of that going on in my viewing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but the movie did throw me for something of a loop right up front.  I’d always assumed that these films were set in some kind of vague 19th century fantasy world, but low and behold, the first film opens up in the middle of a modern-looking London suburb.  I had no idea this took place in a world that resembled our own, but I can also see why the advertisers would de-emphasize these elements because they’re easily the film’s weakest moments.  In fact I might go so far as to say that the first half hour of the film is kind of terrible.  Harry’s aunt and uncle are completely over-the-top assholes and just about every scene from Harry being left on the doorstep to a strange and out of place meeting with a talking boa constrictor were just grating. (EDIT: after seeing Chamber of Secrets the snake scene makes more sense, but is still weird in the context of  the original film).

It’s only when Harry finally gets to Hogwarts that things begin to settle down a little and the film becomes watchable, but it’s certainly still flawed.  The whole film is really episodic and almost serves as this two and a half hour exposition dump to set up the rest of the series, and some of the things that are set up are not all that promising.  A lot of the basic tropes of wizarding (including the word “wizarding”) just come off as kind of lame things to build a series around.  Flying brooms, wands, and spells based around pig-latin just seem really aesthetically dopey and I’m not too excited to have to deal with seven more films that are built around that foundation.   There are other lame fantastical elements that would pop up here and there as well, in particular I think I’ll single out the talking “sorting hat,” which might be the stupidest thing I’ve seen in quite a while.

The film’s titular stone is a pretty unimportant macguffin in the grand scheme of things and the quest for it that concludes the film seems like a pretty small-scale and unimportant affair.  The focus is really on Hogwarts itself and the characters that Harry meets there.  A number of them conform to very typical middle school clichés, like Draco Malfoy, who is a pretty standard issue bully/rival.  I also find it kind of weird that Hogwarts has basically set aside a sort of fraternity for assholes like him and called it the “Slytherin” house.  As for the main trio, well, it’s kind of odd to see these actors as eleven year olds after having seen them in other films as adults.  Harry Potter himself is kind of an odd hero to set the film around, he’s kind of a bland Luke Skywalker type and his central placement in the series thus far seems to be more of a birthright than an earned position. Also the movie is awfully vague about who his parents are, why they’re so famous, and why they were killed; am I missing something?  If he’s Luke Skywalker, then Hermione is his Han Solo.  She’s significantly more capable than he is and has more of a personality as well, she’s easily the standout among the child cast and I can see why she has been tapped to be the actor with the most breakout potential.  Ron on the other hand… well, I’m just going to reserve judgment when it comes to that character because he seems like kind of bland doofus here.

From a production standpoint, the film does hold up pretty well.  Hogwarts is a pretty well designed combination of British boarding school and general fantasy stuff, and a lot of the makeup effects also look pretty good.  The film’s CGI shows some age, but for the most part it holds up.  Pretty much the only effect that really looks bad today is the mountain troll that attacks Hermione in a bathroom, and maybe a centaur that shows up during Harry’s exploration of the magical forest.  The mid-film quidditch match also holds up as a fairly effective mid-film action scene (sort of the film’s response to the pod-race scene from The Phantom Menace) even though quidditch itself seems like kind of a ridiculous sport.

All in all, I can’t say I was either impressed by the first Harry Potter film or disgusted by it.  If anything it kind of leaves me wondering why this series was such a big deal right from the get-go, because this kind of feels like a pretty average kid’s fantasy film.  It’s closer to what I would have expected from one of the many Harry Potter imitators like Percy Jackson & The Olympians that would pop up later than it does like a genuine original (EDIT: upon further research I’ve learned that Percy Jackson & The Olympians was actually directed by Chris Columbus, which explains a lot).  From what I’ve heard the series does get a whole lot better after this, but that things get worse before they gets better.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

 I didn’t think the first Harry Potter films was all that great, but the rest of the nation seemed to disagree.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was something of a phenomenon; it was the highest grossing movie of 2001 (though LOTR was hot on its heels) and for a short while it was the third highest grossing film of all time at the worldwide box office.  To date it remains the second highest grossing film of the entire series and is likely still the highest grossing if you adjust for inflation and for 3D up-charges.  Impressive as that is, this extreme success was somewhat fleeting.  Its follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was also quite successful but not on the massive scale of its predecessor.  In fact it stands as the second-lowest grossing film of the entire series.  That’s relative of course, but that plunge clearly indicates that someone let the air out of the room.

Indeed, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is by far the most disliked film of the series and holds the lowest metascore of all the films in the series.  One of the film’s bigger detractors was Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times who said the film was like “deja vu all over again.”  Indeed, these first two Harry Potter films have followed much the same pattern: arrive at the school, take some classes, play some quidditch, then go behind the staff’s back in order to uncover some dark secret hidden underground at Hogwarts culminating with a duel against some form of Voldemort.  The series is feeling less like a fantasy epic and more like “The Hardy Boys” with wizards.  But I’m not really going to give it too much of a hard time for that because, frankly, the film works way better when it’s unraveling the mystery of the titular “chamber of secrets” than it is when it’s doing anything else.

The basic premise of a secret chamber created by Salazar Slytherin to enact some kind of Wizard Final Solution is kind of intriguing and also acts as a good way to flesh out the wizard-world and its history.  I also liked the movie when it was acting as a who-done-it, although I do find it strange that Harry and company do so much investigating without consulting with Dumbledore and the other trusted adults.  The film’s last twenty minutes or so when Harry confronts “Tom Riddle” and the basilisk are also pretty good and allow the audience to leave on a pretty decent note.  At its core there is a passable Harry Potter movie to be found in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the problem is that Chris Columbus (or J.K. Rowlings) has surrounded this passable Harry Potter movie with a whole lot of stupidity that hampers the film as a whole.

Like the last film, this installment of the series starts off terribly.  I kind of assumed we’d be done with Harry’s retarded uncle and aunt after the last movie, but they’re back and dumber than ever.  The film’s slow start can’t entirely be pinned on those characters though because Harry and Ron’s slapstick filled journey to Hogwarts is just as bad.  I don’t know why Chris Columbus thinks his audience wants to see thirty minutes of bullshit before each of his stories finally kicks off, but this is the second time in a row it’s happened.  At least last time most of the stupidity ended once they finally arrived at the school, but that’s not necessarily the case this time.  This is the film that treats us to Dobby, the most annoying CGI creature this side of Jar-Jar Binks.  I don’t think I need to go into detail about how lame this third-person talking motherfucker is, it kind of speaks for itself.  There are other WTF side-characters too, like Moaning Myrtle, the ghost of the bathroom.  I thought the ghosts were a strange aspect of Hogwarts in the first film, but they were small enough that I didn’t point them out, but not this time.

Then there’s a dumb span of the film where Harry and Ron try to infiltrate the Slytherin camp (because two of Draco’s henchmen are dumb enough to eat whatever cupcakes happen to be levitating in front of them) and then prove to be incompetent at subterfuge.  Also, Hermione turn into a cat person for some reason, one of many cases where magic backfires on people for purposes of dumb comedy.  And speaking of Hermione, she’s kind of sidelined in this movie, which is disappointing because she’s a much more likable and interesting character than Ron’s bumbling ass.

Another thing that’s really starting to bug me about this series is that it’s kind of painfully obvious to the audience which characters should be trusted and which shouldn’t, yet the staff at Hogwarts seems largely oblivious.  I mean, this is an organization that actively employs a guy named Snape, who wears black all the time, heads an evil fraternity of assholes, and is played by Alan Rickman.  In this film they also employ a guy named Gilderoy Lockhart even though it’s comically obvious that he is both incompetent and corrupt.  Then there’s Draco Malfoy, who in this film goes from being merely a bully to being a spoiled little bigoted shit of Joffrey Baratheon proportions, and yet he’s not only allowed into the school but his feud with Harry seems to be actively egged on by his staff.  Good god is this series not subtle when it comes to its heroes and villains.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is not just stupid; at times it’s actively boring.  This is a film that doesn’t have to do nearly as much exposition as the last film, and I can only assume based on the number of pages in the books that it also has less story to tell than future installments, and yet this is actually the longest film in the entire series.  They easily could have molded this into a much tighter and more enjoyable experience, and I can only attribute their failure to do so to some kind of misguided fealty towards J.K. Rowling’s books.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets isn’t a terrible movie, but its negative aspects really stand out even when compared to the already less than great original film.  In fact I almost feel like I owe that original film an apology because when it made mistakes it at least didn’t make them as hard as its sequel does.

In Conclusion

I dismissed the Harry Potter movies back in the day because I thought they were “kid stuff,” and based on what I’ve seen so far I don’t think I was really missing out on much.  If I had given them a chance I think there’s a good chance that I would have given up on the franchise at this point because these two movies are average at best and rather lame at the worst.  Fortunately I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to work with and I know that the next film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is thought to be a major step forward which sets the series back on the right course.  I look forward to seeing that, but for now I am definitely not sold on this series.  Next Month I’ll dive into the world of claymation by looking at a pair of films from the Aardman Animation Studios: Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Iron Man 3(5/8/2013)

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I can’t be the only person to notice this but the man in charge of Marvel’s film productions, Kevin Feige, totally stole his business model from a rapper/music producer named the RZA.  Back in 1993 RZA founded the immortal Hip-Hop group The Wu-Tang Clan as a sort of loose collective of New York MCs who would each work with RZA to put out solo albums one at a time and then form together to put out full collaborative Wu-Tang albums and then repeat the cycle thereafter.  That’s exactly what Feige has done with The Avengers: he’s made each member of that supergroup fully capable of working simultaneously as a solo act and as a group member.  It must also be some sort of cosmic coincidence that the Wu-Tang member who’s had arguably the best solo career is Ghostface Killah, who has throughout his career adopted the alias Tony Starks and whose debut solo album was called “Ironman,” which was of course named after the comic book hero who would become the breakout star of Marvel’s “phase one.”  It was only natural that marvel would go to that breakout star for their first solo project in the wake of the massive success that was The Avengers: and that’s exactly what they’ve done by sliding Iron Man 3 into their summer 2013 slot.

Iron Man 3 is set a few months or so after the events of The Avengers and at something of a low point in the life of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).  Tony is as rich as ever and his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is intact, but his experience fighting off the Chitauri invasion at the end of The Avengers has left him somewhat traumatized; he’s been obsessively upgrading his Iron Man suits and losing a lot of sleep in the process.  The state of the world isn’t great either.  A terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been attacking prominent targets in the United States and has been interrupting television broadcasts in order to brag about it.  The President (William Sadler) has responded to these attacks by re-branding a James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) piloted War Machine as “The Iron Patriot” and sending him on reconnaissance missions, but so far these have been fruitless.  Eventually Happy Hogan (John Favreau), who has been promoted to Stark Industries’ head of security, finds a link between The Mandarin and the leader of a prominent think tank head named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and this discovery lands him in the hospital.  Incensed, Tony declares a personal war against The Mandarin, but it’s a war he may not truly be prepared for.

The Iron Man character is of course very popular right now, but Iron Man 2 clearly proved that the producers couldn’t just throw Robert Downey Jr. into any messy film and expect him to turn it to gold.  As such, the creative team has been changed up for this third sequel. Shane Black has been brought on as director and co-writer, which is a choice that I must say I’ve been conflicted about.  On one hand, Black isn’t some kind of lame studio hack like Louis Leterrier, but given the voice he’s employed on previous films there was a danger that he’d turn the film into s total snark-fest.  Fortunately that isn’t really the case.  Like Joss Whedon before him Shane Black has managed to inject this film with some of his signature humor while knowing when to rein it in.  In fact, this has been billed as the darkest installment of the series to date, but that’s kind of a relative term.  If I were to develop a “seriousness scale” from 1 to 10 (with ten being the most serious) the first two films would probably land at 4 and 3.5 respectively and this one would land at something like a 5.

In fact, I think most audiences have come to expect only slight differences between installments in Marvel films, that studio has come to really hedge their creative bets for better or worse.  Pretty much any review of any of their films could probably just go “did you like the last one? Then expect this one to be more of the same except very slightly better/worse.”  This has the same expensive CGI heavy actioneering we’ve seen before in this series and more of Robert Downey Jr. cracking wise.   Some of the previous film’s negatives have also carried over, namely the franchise’s pathetic inability to create memorable villains.  I thought they’d be able to reverse that by bringing in The Mandarin (who is pretty much the only noteworthy villain in Iron Man’s entire comic book rouge gallery), but he isn’t has big of a presence in the film as the trailers would have you believe.  Black comes up with a fairly amusing twist on the character, but for much of the run time the film’s villain role is taken over by a fairly bland corporate villain played by Guy Pearce.

I wish I had more to say about this film except that “they didn’t screw it up.”  It takes almost no real risks and suffers no major setbacks.  It improves slightly on its predecessor, which I suppose makes up for the fact that Iron Man 2 was slightly worse than the first.  This “play it safe” attitude of Marvel’s is going to come back and bite them in the ass eventually, but not this time.  Iron Man 3 is a perfectly enjoyable modern summer blockbuster that will leave few fans looking for “more of the same” unsatisfied.

*** out of Four

The Place Beyond the Pines(4/28/2013)

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Ryan Gosling first came onto the scene in a romantic film called The Notebook, a film which quietly became a huge hit with female audiences and sparked the trend of nearly identical Nicholas Sparks adaptations.  The film was kind of like what Titanic would have been if it had never tried to appeal to anyone outside of the “teenage girls swooning over Leo” demographic.  And like Leonardo DiCaprio before him, Ryan Gosling had done pretty much everything in his power to distance himself from that teeny-bopper image since that success.  Since The Notebook, Gostling has played a crack smoking teacher, a dude with a creepy sex toy fixation, a corrupt political advisor, and an escape driver who stomps peoples’ skulls in.  One of his best anti-Notebook roles was in the film Blue Valentine, where he plays a man who’s in a decisively non-fairy tale and borderline abusive relationship.  That was the debut film of a talented director named Derek Cianfrance who’s reteamed with Gostling for his follow-up film, gritty crime thriller called The Place Beyond the Pines.

The film begins somewhere in the late 80s or early 90s in Schenectady, New York (a city whose name, when translated from Iroquois, means “the place beyond the pines”) and focuses on a man named Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), who is in town as part of a touring motorcycle stunt show on the county-fair circuit.  Glanton uses his stop to re-connect with a woman named Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he’d had a fling a year or so earlier, and discovers that she’d recently had his baby.  Suddenly overcome with concern, Glanton quits his job and moves into Schenectady, but Romina has already started a new life with a man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali) and may not have any room for Glanton in her family.  Looking for a way to support Romina, Glanton decides to team up with a local scoundrel named Robin Van Der Zee (Ben Mendelsohn) to rob some local banks, which goes well initially but he soon finds the heat headed in his direction.

The film’s plot, as described above, has all the ingredients for a serviceable in not overly original Sundance film, but The Place Beyond the Pines has grander ambitions than that and goes off into unexpected directions at about the midway point.  I’m not going to give away the film’s twist except to say it sort of turns into a different film at this point which maybe isn’t the one that people expected to see.  As I watched the film I nearly certain that what I was watching had to be an adaptation of a novel, possibly one by Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos, and I was absolutely shocked when the credits rolled and only saw Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder credited for an original screenplay.  That’s crazy.  This kind of sprawling yarn with notable pivots in story trajection is the opposite of the conventional screenplay formula and I suspect it will be off-putting to some.  Most people say they don’t want all their films to be predictable, but the truth is a lot of people do tend to punish movies that don’t follow the patterns they expect them to follow.  I found the film’s twist bold and interesting.  I was with it for a while, but then the film takes yet another turn that proved less fruitful and I’ll leave it at that.

The Place Beyond the Pines was allegedly made for $15 million dollars but it definitely looks more expensive than that.  Well, maybe it doesn’t.  Derek Cianfrance is certainly working with a larger cast and has produced some bigger set-pieces, but he’s maintained Blue Valentine’s grainy and intimate visual style.  This captures the film’s dingy locations pretty well and also gives a sense of economic realism to the whole film.  The drawback is that it makes it all the more jarring when the plot takes a turn for the not-so-literally-realistic in its final third.  In fact it’s that final third in general that holds this film back from greatness, and yes, this film does flirt with greatness before it eventually lets itself down.  This is the kind of film that I want to love: it’s got epic ambitions and is well executed for much of its runtime, but in the end it just bites off a little more than it can chew.  I’m definitely still recommending the film for all that it does right in the first two thirds, and even for a couple of nice moments in its back third, but I must say that I was pretty frustrated when I finally saw where the film was going.

***1/2 out of Four

To the Wonder(4/21/2013)

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Terrence Malick is treasured by film critics because he’s one of the last of a dying breed.  He’s pretty much the only working American director who’s using respectable budgets to make what are more or less pure art films.  While I wouldn’t call any of his films “inaccessible,” his lyrical style and unconventional narratives are left-field enough to seem rather strange to unsuspecting audiences that get drawn in by trailers which seem to promise more straightforward prestige fare.  He’s a man with impeccable credibility but his latest project, To the Wonder, has been an aberration from his usual M.O. in a number of ways.   For one thing, Malick managed to make and release the film a mere two years after his last project, which is by far the fastest turn-around he’s ever managed.  It’s also gotten more negative buzz than one would expect to see directed against a living national treasure.  The one other time that a lot of critics have turned against Malick it was when he made The New World, which may well be my favorite of all his films, so I wasn’t going to let mixed reviews deter me from giving it a chance.

The film primarily concerns itself with the relationship between a French woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and an American man named Neil (Ben Affleck), who are both already madly in love as the film begins.  Marina is divorced and has a young daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from the previous marriage, and given her devout catholic faith believes she can never truly marry again.  They still become very close and Marina follows Neil as he returns to his hometown in Oklahoma.  The transition is not easy for Tatiana and the couple eventually drifts apart, but can they ever truly stay apart?

I liked a lot about Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, but I don’t consider it a masterpiece in part because it feels incomplete.  It was a film that claimed to be a portrait of human life in its entirety but it cut off the story of its protagonist when he was, like, twelve.  We didn’t see his teen years or anything of his adulthood outside of a few brief moments where he’s portrayed by actor Sean Penn.  To the Wonder is not a sequel to The Tree of Life, but in some ways it picks up where that movie left off.  One could imagine the young boy in The Tree of Life growing up to be a man not unlike Ben Affleck’s character in To the Wonder, and the two films share many stylistic elements in their depiction of what are essentially common lives.

That said, there are also major differences between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder as well.  To the Wonder is in many ways a smaller film and eschews a lot of The Tree of Life’s more bombastic tendencies.  You will not see flashbacks to the dawn or time, dinosaurs, or anything else like that here.  It also isn’t told through flashbacks, it’s set in the here and now, and the story is more or less in chronological order.  Do not make the mistake or thinking that any of this means that To the Wonder is going to simpler and more accessible film than The Tree of Life because To the Wonder is a film that will baffle pretty much anyone who goes into it expecting traditional storytelling.  In fact it may well be the closest that Malick has ever gotten to using cinema as a form of poetry rather than as a form of prose.

Conventional dialogue is nearly non-existent in To the Wonder.  There are scenes where people talk to one another, and these conversations are important, but you’ll almost never see a part of the film where the camera cuts from one over-the-shoulder shot to another as exposition is drilled into your head.  This being a Malick film there is of course voice-over, but it’s more ethereal than ever and it isn’t really used as exposition either.  Instead most of the storytelling is visual and is largely rooted in the body language of its two main characters.  It’s not hard at all to see the relationship going from A to B to C, but given that you aren’t really privy to many of the characters’ conversations it’s not overly easy to tell why it’s following that trajectory, and to some extent the trick is to not care that you don’t understand.

In fact that’s generally true of both this entire film and most of Malick’s work.  I think what throws a lot of people is that they go into his movies and sort of over-think them when they should just sit back and let his films watch over them the way you would while reading a particularly lyrical poem.  The visuals here are as beautiful as they’ve ever been in a Malick film and while there are elements to the film (like Javier Bardem’s presence in it) that seem a little odd to me, but for the most part I think To the Wonder works quite well if you simply let it work.  It’s not a film that I’d recommend to everybody, especially those who aren’t already fond of Malick’s style, but I’ve got to say I was entranced while watching it and I’s be happy to see Malick continue down this road of applying his magic and wisdom to everyday lives and every day places.

***1/2 out of Four

Crash Course: The Fast and the Furious Sequels

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  I plan for this to be a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

In 2001 Universal Pictures released a modest action film about illegal street racing with what must have been rather modest expectations.  The film, The Fast and the Furious, hit a chord with a generation of millennial teenagers and ended up being a major sleeper hit which spawned a franchise that inexplicably lives on to this day.  I was thirteen years old when that original film came out and was thus right in its target-demographic, and consequently, I saw the film and quite enjoyed it.  Of course my standards at that tender age were relatively low and at the time I wasn’t exactly aware of the fact that the movie was a fairly blatant ripoff of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 thriller Point Break.  I don’t know that I’d like it if I saw it today, but my impression of it is still mostly positive.  I did not, however, see any of the film’s sequels, partly because of their diminishing critical credibility and partly because my standards in cinema raised dramatically in the time between the release of the original film and the follow-ups.  The final nail in the coffin likely came when I learned that the sequels was going to be title 2 Fast 2 Furious, and of course the joke I used to describe it was “2 Dumb 2 See” (it seemed less cheap and obvious at the time).

I had pretty much dismissed the whole series as a complete joke, but then something funny happened: the series seemed to make a big comeback in the public’s eye.  The fourth installment made a big surprise splash at the box office and the fifth film actually got legitimately positive reviews.  It seemed that the series had fully embraced its own ridiculousness and turned into a sort of intentionally over the top experience that harkened back to the likes of the immortal Bad Boys II.  What finally convinced me to give the film another chance once and for all was the advertisement for the upcoming Fast & Furious 6 which aired during the Super Bowl and promised a freeway chase involving a tank and a car bursting out of the front of an airplane.  That sounded like fun, and the explosion of enthusiasm across the internet that followed convinced me that I was missing out on something.  And that is why I’m making the Fast & Furious franchise the subject of the first installment of my new series: Crash Course (car pun not intended).

 

2 Fast 2 Furious

F&F2The first sequel in the franchise was titled 2 Fast 2 Furious, which has to be one of the stupidest named ever given to a big budget Hollywood film.  It’s the kind of name you give to a movie that you don’t expect anyone to take seriously for even a second, and that’s true of pretty much the entire film.  Of course it sounds ridiculous to expect gritty realism from any film from this franchise, but this installment is way more over the top than the original.  In fact it’s odd that this was the installment of the series that was directed by John Singleton, the formerly respectable director behind Boyz n the Hood, because this movie is way less cool and streetwise than the first film which was directed by a fifty year old white Jewish guy.  Singleton doesn’t make the streets of Miami look anywhere near as interesting as Rob Cohen made South Central L.A. look in the first film, and Singleton’s depiction of the street racing sub-culture seems completely half-assed.

In fact there are only two actual street racing scenes in the film and both of them seem completely tacked on.  The first one is the film’s opening scene which seems to take place over a half dozen city blocks, has a number of turns, and ends with common criminals somehow commandeering a lift bridge.  It’s far removed from the relatively plausible quarter-mile drag races from the first film.  The second such scene is a tag-team drag race which seems so gratuitous that I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard it was added during reshoots.  In fact the film seems so disinterested in actual street racing that I kind of wish they hadn’t felt obligated to incorporate it into the film at all, because every time it gets incorporated into the film it feels extremely awkward.

The bulk of the film is a run-of-the-mill story of criminals going under-cover to take down a drug lord played by Cole Hauser.  Hauser’s character is horribly generic Scarface wannabe who isn’t anywhere near as menacing as the Asian gang from the first film but to be fair, Hauser is by no means the only weak link in this cast.  Vin Diesel, whose career was still rather promising at this point, did not come back for the sequel.  As such the success fell squarely on the shoulders of Paul Walker, who was by no means capable of carrying a film on his own.  He’s not a terrible actor exactly, and he was slightly more palatable than I remembered him being, but he doesn’t really have much of a distinctive personality either.  The R&B singer Tyrese Gibson was brought in fill the film’s muscle-bound bald guy quota, and he had a certain charm of his own, but he couldn’t compare to the larger than life bravado that Diesel brought to the first film and he felt like kind of a second rate scab in comparison.  It also doesn’t help that both of these characters are complete nothings.  The first film’s “undercover cop who grows to like the people he’s investigating” story might have been clichéd, but at least there was something there for the actors to latch onto.  Here they’ve really got nothing to work with.

As for the film’s all important action scenes… they’re alright I guess.  Most of them are completely gratuitous and all of them are completely unbelievable, but at last there seemed to be some ambition behind them.  The film’s stunt crew clearly wanted to top the scene from the first film where the car drove under the semi-truck so they filled the film with every kind of outlandish car stunt they could imagine with little regard to plausibility.  The final chase scene is kind of interesting if only for the sheer number of cars in it and some of the other stunts are conceptually great even if they aren’t really executed believably.  Overall, this is a lame-ass sequel that’s far removed from everything that worked moderately well in the original.

** out of Four

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

F&F3When the producers decided to name the second movie 2 Fast 2 Furious I’m sure they thought it was cool, clever, or maybe just campy fun, but either way I think it sort of backfired on them.  It made the whole series seem like a big joke that wasn’t going to be around long.  The series looked like it was so over that they couldn’t even bring back Paul Walker (a man who hasn’t had a single hit outside of this series) to come back for the third film.  In fact, I strongly suspect that when they went into production on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift they weren’t sure if what they were making would even be a theatrical release.  It has all the usual trappings of a straight-to-DVD spin off from the total absence of original cast-members to the generic title to the fact that it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the continuity of the previous films (aside from an out-of-nowhere cameo at the tail end).

If there’s anything particularly good to say about The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift it’s that it isn’t as over the top and stupid as 2 Fast 2 Furious and it actually has something to do with racing.  In fact I’d barely call it an action movie.  It’s more like a sports movie or something like 8 Mile except with the rap battles replaced by drift races.  In fact it seemed like a pretty good idea to set the film in Tokyo and to focus on drift racing, which was certainly a visually interesting style of motorsport even if it was a rather short-lived trend.  The problem is that everything about it feels cheap and second rate.  Wikipedia tells me that this actually has a higher budget than both of the preceding films, but it certainly doesn’t show on screen, especially in its climactic race scene which is a poorly lit and edited slog down a mountain.

The producers also seemed to cut costs when casting the film, because there’s no other explanation for why they thought it was a good idea to build a film of this scale around Lucas Black, who is quite possibly the only actor on earth who’s noticeably more boring than Paul Walker.  Black is supposedly playing a 17 year old delinquent, but he looks like a 30 year old Mormon and doesn’t do a lot to make you interested in his character’s fate.  I’m not even sure why they thought it was a good idea to make this a story about a teenager in the first place, it seems to be a far cry from the cast cool twenty-somethings that populated the other films, but if they’re going to go that route they should at least cast someone who looks the part.  The rest of the cast isn’t a lot better.  You can tell that a series is going off course when the best token rapper you can get is Lil’ Bow Wow and Nathalie Kelly is a far cry from Michelle Rodriguez and Eva Mendes.  Some of the Asain cast members like Sung Kang and Brian Tee hold up a little bit better, but still there’s a clear charisma drop between this film and the rest of series.

All in all I feel like between this and 2 Fast 2 Furious we’ve seen two separate examples of how not to make a TFATF sequel.  One of them went way off the deep end into stupidity and the other felt like some kind of non-union scab version of the original.  I’m not entirely sure which of these approaches I prefer.  I suppose Tokyo Drift is a slightly better film but there was probably more potential to be found in 2 Fast 2 Furious’ approach, which seems closer to the insanity that I saw in the trailers for Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6.  Still, these are both very sub-par sequels, there’s nothing about them that would have made me feel like this series would still be viable in 2013.

 ** out of Four

Fast & Furious

F&F4The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is by far the lowest grossing film in the series, having only grossed a total of about $62 million domestically.  That sounds like a decent chunk of cash but it’s well under the film’s $85 million budget and is significantly less than the $125 million+ grosses of its predecessors.  It did do a little better in foreign markets, but all signs still pointed to this being a franchise on its last legs and I never thought I’d see another one made, much less another one become any sort of box office success.  And yet, inexplicably, the series not only came back with a fourth installment but managed to outgross all of its predecessors in the process and completely resurrect the series.

How did this happen.  Fast & Furious had the same director and budget of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the reviews were some of the series’ worst, and if anything the brand should have just seemed exceedingly dated in the three years it took to make the film.  The only possible explanation for this return of interest is that this fourth installment reunited the first film’s cast (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez), and yet no one seemed to be all that interested in any of these guys outside of the Fast and Furious series, so that doesn’t entirely explain it either.

I suspect that a lot of the film’s success was rooted in some keen marketing ideas, especially the decision to release the film in early April instead of early June like the previous installments had been.  This meant that the movie didn’t have as many like-minded films to compete against, and that’s important because how enjoyable one finds this movie has a lot to do with what your standards are.  When compared to some of that year’s more accomplished action films like Avatar, Star Trek, Watchmen, Public Enemies, and District 9 this really isn’t all that impressive but in the less competitive world of the mid-spring box office I could see people starved for dumb fun flocking to this.  And when judged as a sort of B-grade Hollywood movie there is fun to be had from Fast & Furious.

Most of the cars in the series up to this point have been modern Japanese imports that have been modified and “tricked out” both for cosmetic and performance purposes.  These were apparently authentic to what was actually being driven by L.A. street racers, but by the end of all of the first three films (even the one set in Tokyo) the hero will have started driving a classic muscle car like a Dodge Charger, Chevy Camaro, or a Ford Mustang.  In Fast & Furious they mostly drop the imports all together and dedicate most of their time to American cars from the late 60s and early 70s.  I would like to think that this was done as a nod toward the ailing post-recession U.S. auto industry, but it’s more likely related to the fact that many of the film’s action scenes are out in the desert rather than on urban streets.

Another reason for the switch in auto-types is that this is the place where the series really stopped claiming to have much of anything whatsoever to do with the increasingly irrelevant world of illegal street racing.  Instead, the producers decided to focus in on the fact that the main characters in the first film were cops and car thieves and role with that as the series’ overriding theme.  In fact the silly, but mostly impressive opening action scene for example, is meant as a sort of bigger and crazier version of the truck hijacking scenes from that original film.  From there we’re treated to a serviceable but bland action movie story about people going undercover to bust up a drug cartel.  The movie is in many ways a direct sequel to the original film; there’s nothing here that contradicts the events of 2 Fast 2 Furious, but it isn’t talked about either, and there’s only a small nod towards The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (which supposedly takes place after the events of this film, but we’ll talk more about that later).

Director Justin Lin seems significantly more comfortable behind the camera here than he did in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and the film works better because of it.  I can see why this is the film that set the series back on the right course and I do think it’s a better movie than 2 or three, but it’s also more forgettable.  The story lacks a really juicy hook and most of the development between the characters just doesn’t amount to much.  It’s a passable movie (which is more than I can say for some films in this series), but that’s about it.

*** out of four

Fast Five

F&F5I had some mild curiosity about whether or not the previous F&F movies were as bad as I thought they were, but what really made me interested in the series was this fifth installment and its surprisingly positive critical reception. On Rotten Tomatoes the previous films in the series scored 52%, 36%, 35%, and 27% respectively, but this one skyrocketed to an impressive 78%.  It was like the opposite of the “jump the shark” phenomenon, it was an installment that brought a strange sort of respectability to the series as a whole and set it off in a new and stronger direction.  That’s not to say that I was under the impression that this would be an artful new direction, rather, it seemed like it was now going to be a sort of grand and sublimely stupid spectacle and that’s more or less what I got.

A big part of the film’s success is that its budget jumped from $85 million to $125 million, and director Justin Lin manages to squeeze everything he can from that extra $40 million.  Firstly, he finds a hip new location in Rio De Janeiro, which has become quite the hotspot for both action movies and video games.  Secondly, he’s expended the cast significantly.  All the major surviving players from Fast & Furious are back and they’ve also brought back Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious and improved their characters significantly.  On top of that, they’ve brought in The Rock to act as a cop trying to track the gang down.  I don’t really love The Rock’s performance here but he provides an intimidating physical presence and brings a nice flair to the proceedings.

The other thing they’ve done to up the ante here is to make the action scenes and stunts even bigger and better than they were before.  The world of street racing is little more than a distant memory here, instead this is built to be a sort of Ocean’s 11 style heist film, albeit with a lot of car chases.  And oh, what car chases.  The tone is set very well early on when Paul Walker takes part in an elaborate heist that involves removing sports cars from a cargo train and ends with him and Vin Diesel driving a car off a cliff.  The film’s climax, which involves a bank vault chained to a pair of cars and results in massive property damage, is perhaps the grandest spectacle we’ve yet seen from the series.  The film also isn’t shy about including action scenes which don’t involve cars, like shootouts and fist fights.

Just about every blockbuster that gets made by Hollywood tries to excuse its shortcomings by claiming to “just be dumb fun.”  Fast Five is one of the few films to actually earn this label.  It knows exactly what it is and then actually executes on that with both ambition and skill.  It isn’t a film that’s content to simply be a juvenile car fantasy for fourteen year olds, instead it wants to be the greatest juvenile car fantasy for fourteen year olds ever made.   It’s a little messy in the way it goes about doing this and not every element works, but it is as fun as it says it is and I enjoyed watching it quite a bit.

***1/2 out of Four