Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Let the Grown-Ups Work

Two new films deal - in very different ways - with grown men who are at odds with the world around them. In Black Mass, small-time gangster James "Whitey" Bulger sees opportunity and ruthlessly moves to expand his sphere of influence while in The Intern, retired phone book manufacturer Ben Whittaker seeks to fill his days by working at an internet start-up.

 Black Mass purports to be the story of how far loyalty can stretch when one boy grows up to become an FBI agent and another grows up to become a gangster with his fingers in the criminal pies of extortion, loan sharking, drugs, and everything else an FBI agent is supposed to stop. (I say "purports" because there's some question about how much is true - a common problem with biopics.) Wanting to bring down the Italian mob more than wanting to bust an old friend from Southie, Agent John Connolly convinces his onetime friend, James Bulger, to become an informant. He won't be a rat, you understand - rats are bad - but he'll be able to clean out the old neighborhood.

Bulger understands very well. Nature, and crime, abhor a vacuum, so as the Italians go away, Bulger takes over. Played by Johnny Depp is one of his most compelling performances ever, Bulger is the picture of the neighborhood gangster. He's kind to little old ladies and probably tells kids to stay in school, but he's absolutely ruthless when crossed and he doesn't bother to ask anyone else to do his dirty work - Bulger's fine killing with his bare hands. It's an astonishing performance and the supporting cast (which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Jesse Plemons) is very strong. In fact, the performances are probably a shade better than the story, which can seem choppy in places. However, Black Mass is well worth seeing, even if it just to remind you that behind Depp's campy romps is an actor who has honed his craft to a fine edge.

In another generation, The Intern would have been a Cary Grant movie.* Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) answers an ad seeking senior citizens to be interns at "About the Fit," an internet clothing company that was established by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). The company isn't even two years old and Jules has over 200 employees, as well as a husband and daughter. She's trying to juggle her responsibilities in all these areas of her life and, while she means well, she's making a hash of it all. Ben might not be familiar with the technological whosits, but he's the voice of calm reason and picture of style. (Side note - yes, men should carry handkerchiefs - I married a man who does and it certainly does get noticed!) This film doesn't really have any sharp edges; it's a throwback to a quieter sort of comedy and while not all of it quite holds together (I think writer/director Nancy Meyers lets Jules' husband off too easily and the film praises overwork more than I think it ought to), The Intern will become a late-night movie staple. See it in the theaters first.

*One of the later ones - maybe Walk Don't Run.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Company Manners

This weekend, I went to see M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, The Visit. The movie is fine - with a PG-13 rating, it's filled with jump-scares rather than actual gore and the two young actors playing the leads (Olivia DeJonge as Becca and Ed Oxenbould as her younger brother Tyler) are certainly actors to watch. Although Shyamalan has an interesting idea in having Becca be a film-obsessed teen making a documentary of her experiences, it means far, FAR too much shaky-cam for my taste. (Then again, it provides an excellent way to cheat actually seeing gore and build the dread, plus it provides a few lovely moments about the nature of filmmaking.) Plus, you really could just tell the ticket window that you want a ticket to see "Scary Grandparents," and they'll know exactly what movie you mean. As with all of Shyamalan's movies, the "twist" (the twist! THE TWIST!) is centered in the hard reality that strange things have a reasonable explanation, albeit one that's dark.

Honestly, when it comes to The Visit, I think it's probably a rental rather than a big-screen must-see, and if you're one of those who keeps giving Shyamalan a chance based on his being crowned "the next Steven Spielberg" ten years ago (and wondering when that's going to happen), fine, go see it.

My real focus here is on something I never thought I'd need to spell out. But here goes - ahem. A tutorial for people attending movies in 2015.

1. The people on the screen can't actually hear you. I get it. Part of the fun of seeing a scary movie is being scared. Presumably, you've paid your money based on that premise and haven't wandered into the wrong theater. Jumping, yelping, and (yes) the occasional "Don't go there!" are perfectly acceptable - and can add to the overall experience (the audience helped me immensely during The Conjuring - they were having such fun that I let loose and enjoyed myself more than I normally would have. Honestly, it's just not a good movie.) However, during my daytime viewing of The Visit, the audience was loudly commenting on the behavior and appearance of every character onscreen. This means they were forgetting a basic point of movie-watching . . .

2. That little ticket in your hand means you're not in your living room. I cannot adequately express my grief and rage at this lack of courtesy. As a fan of MST3K and its progeny, yes, I've been known to snark my way through movies I watch at home. Yes, I've even been known to comment on Beach Blanket Bingo and Jason & the Argonauts when shown to small groups. I don't squawk during films shown in my classes, nor do I yap during movies I - and the people around me - have paid good coin to see as a general practice. (I'm looking at you, Transformers 4 and Star Trek: Into Darkness - you pushed me off the path of righteousness). It's a basic rule - if you're not part of the show, you're there to be entertained. You're not part of the entertainment itself, so shut up. (Sorry to be so blunt.) I've paid good money to watch the shenanigans onscreen, not to listen to you and you're not there to listen to me. Let's agree on that point and eat popcorn together in a show of unity.

3. For two hours, really - it's okay to NOT check your phone. I can't believe I even have to say this, but I do. Cell phones are both marvels of the modern age and a curse that may undo us all. They also come with a light-up screen which carries far, far further than you think it does in a darkened theater. No, don't text, tweet, Instagram, Facebook, or whatever else you're doing once the "Enjoy this digital feature presentation" comes on the screen - and even that's later than you should be electronically available. Once they remind you to cut off your phone, CUT OFF YOUR PHONE!

4. If you're not going to watch the credits, move along. I'm one of those oddballs who watches the credits. For me, a movie isn't over until I've seen the cast (including "3d Solider from the Left"), the crew (including "Junior Assistant Accountant"), songs (really? That was from Tosca?), caught the weird credits ("Cockroach Wrangler" is still a favorite of mine), and seen the IATSE logo. I get that many other viewers don't want to sit through the credits (I don't understand it, but I get it. Me, I'm watching every frame I paid for), but I can't tell you the number of times I've had people just stop and chat with their equally rude brethren in front of my seat, thus blocking the screen for me. Keep it moving, folks, and chat in the hallway once you're out of the theater.

I swear, I'm becoming more of a curmudgeon each day. But really - movie watching in a theater should be a shared experience with the other people in the audience and that requires a certain level  of respect and a willingness to form that community with the people there.

So - to recap. The characters can't hear you, hush, and turn off your phone. That way, you'll have far more to talk about after the credits roll.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Over Labor Day weekend, I took my mother to see A Walk in the Woods, the movie version of Bill Bryson's 1998 travelogue of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I first read the book about ten years ago and it remains one of my all-time favorite examples of travel writing. The movie version makes (of course) some changes from the book, one of the biggest of which is the casting of the leads. When Bryson set out to hike the AT, he was 47. In the film, he's played by Robert Redford, who is in his late 70s. That alone changes the story considerably - Bryson is no longer facing a mid-life crisis; rather, he's being influenced by funerals and a TV interview that suggests he doesn't have anything left in him to write about.

Since seeing the film, I've heard some criticism that it's "grumpy men on the trail" and some sniffs of derision from purists, but I say ignore that and go see this film - on the big screen, please. The Appalachian Trail is one of the most thrilling monuments to the wilderness that we have here in America, and it's within a day's drive of half the country's population. It's also heart-stoppingly beautiful and Ken Kwapis's film doesn't stint on that, even if Georgia is standing in for large chunks of the trail that are actually located further north.

Originally, Redford wanted Walk to be a joint project with Paul Newman, and we can only wonder at what that might have been like, especially back in the day when Redford and Newman were at the height of their masculine beauty and sharp wit. However, Nick Nolte as the out-of-shape, possibly on the run, lecherous Katz is a marvel. Nolte is one of those actors whose personal life overtook his talents for a time, but here he's a force to be reckoned with. 

Neither Katz nor Bryson truly understand what they've gotten themselves into, although they're better prepared that Cheryl Strayed was in Wild (also - the Pacific Crest Trail is far wilder than the older AT, which is generally pretty close to civilization and boasts an impressive chain of rustic shelters). There are threats on the trail, including annoying, much younger, hikers and bears, but also having so much time to think. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to tell you that my mother is the woman who instilled a love of the outdoors in me. I was riding a pony on my own before I could write my name in cursive and I hiked Mt. LeConte several times before I was ten, including one time when an early winter storm left the balance cables coated in ice. I think people who behave like the wilderness is their own personal playroom are morons of the first order and people who are disappointed that the bears in Yellowstone aren't Yogi probably shouldn't be allowed to roam around unsupervised. We have so few wild places left that it would do us all good to get out and spend some time in them and feel small when standing in the middle of it all. Until you can plan that, go see A Walk in the Woods - and mourn the passing of the American chestnut and rejoice that science may yet bring it back from the brink.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Violence & People

Sorry - due to the start of the semester at my college, I fell a bit behind, so this is a double post. It works out, though, since there's a theme to the three movies I want to discuss. While all three take different paths, Straight Outta Compton, '71, and No Escape all have one thing in common - all three focus on how normal, everyday people react to living in a violent environment.

 Straight Outta Compton is the biopic of the influential hip-hop group N.W.A. The film is doing (pardon the pun) gangbusters at the box office and rests squarely at the intersection of reconstructed history and marketing. Compton is an uncomfortable movie to watch as it doesn't shy away from showing the casual racism toward and everyday degradation of people who happen to live in a high-crime zip code. N.W.A. raised some interesting questions about the limits of free speech in performance and how much of a performer's stage persona could be counted on as being real. Plus, the album was the one of the first to sport the "Parental Advisory" sticker that is the basis of the movie poster.

The cast is amazingly strong, including both Ice Cube's son (who had to repeatedly audition for the role) and seasoned Broadway actors. The movie has come under fire for both the seemingly nit-picky and the "Really? You left that out?" I get conflicted on these points - biopics are not documentaries, but carefully constructed narratives (the director has said the the Dee Barnes "incident" [which most of us would call "felonious battery"] was left out because it "didn't serve the narrative"), but some of this smacks of dishonesty. The members of N.W.A. saw money as power and freedom and they got an awful lot of it terribly young and lacked wise guidance. Maybe Jerry Heller wasn't as bad as he's portrayed in this film and maybe he was. Maybe Dr. Dre's 25-years-too-late apology for abusing women is sincere or maybe the timing has a lot to do with the multi-billion dollar sale of Beats (ironic name for a product hawked by an abuser of women, right?) to Apple, who wants very much to have a clean image while using Dre's street cred. None of this changes the fact that Compton is a movie well worth seeing. The #BlackLivesMatter movement didn't spring up out of Ferguson without roots and some of those roots were formed in the late 1980s in Compton.

'71 deals with a city under another kind of siege. In 1971, the Northern Ireland city of Belfast was sharply divided not by skin color, but by religion. The "Troubles" have tangled roots that are far more complex than a disagreement over belief in transubstantiation and young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is thrust into the middle of it without so much as a map. Separated from his overwhelmed unit, Hook has to survive in a strange city where friend and foe can both be disguised. This film didn't come near me, but the reviews were so strong (plus, I have an interest in Irish history) that Ensley and I sought it out on Netflix. You won't necessarily understand the Troubles any better at the end of the movie - but neither does Hook. You will, however, have an additional sympathy for anyone - man, woman, or child - who had to find a way to live in such a tumultuous world with any semblance of normalcy.

Last, the Owen Wilson adventure movie No Escape opened this weekend. The film focuses on a picture-perfect American family (husband, wife, two adorable little girls) who are seeking a fresh start in an unknown East Asian country. (It's made clear that the country borders Vietnam, but no specific identification is made.) Just before they arrive, the country undergoes a violent coup and the Americans are distinctly unsafe. The film is a taut thriller that has received a number of complaints for xenophobia, a claim I don't think is warranted. From a storytelling point of view, the coup had to happen somewhere (and I'm not sure I can name the last film I saw in which the Vietnamese were the good guys!) and it adds to the tension that the American family can't understand the language. (I'm also glad the filmmakers resisted the impulse to add subtitles so the audience members are also unsure of what's being said.) No Escape is a by-the-numbers thriller, but for me, the thrills worked, as did the father's desperate attempts at humor to distract his scared-out-of-their-minds daughters. And don't discount the wife (Lake Bell), who may be frightened out of her wits, but by God, no one's hurting her little girls. It's a rental, but a good popcorn movie - and yes, it turns out there is an escape.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Dark & Gritty & Wrong

It's no secret that I love comic books. (I still bristle at the term "graphic novel" - it just seems a little high-horse to me, as if "comic book" is a filthy term. But I digress.) There is a strain of comics that are most definitely not for children (Sandman, Preacher, Last Man, etc.), just as there is a segment of animation that is not intended for children (Boondocks, Family Guy, and oh, God - Grave of the Fireflies, for example). And that's as it should be. (By the way, Grave of the Fireflies is fantastic and amazing. I will also never watch it again if I can help it.)

But there seems to be a trend to homogenize comic book movies to make them all "realistic," meaning "dark and gritty." For some properties, such as Batman, this can work. For others, this insistence of making storylines grim does a disservice to the material.

So let's talk about Fantastic Four

There is so much wrong with this movie that it's shocking that the film is only 100 minutes long. The arguments and tales of bad behavior on the set are taking on legendary status and it is entirely possible that director Josh Trank (who seems to have gotten the gig on the basis of his film Chronicle, which also dealt with teens acquiring superpowers) may have torpedoed his career. The actors will (probably) recover, but this stinker will come up in interviews for years to come, unless the topic is put off-limits by a careful publicist.

Trank's not totally to blame, although he can't escape responsibility here, either. The film is a hot mess - to the point that Our Heroes don't get their powers until halfway through the film, and then we quickly jump to "one year later." Time jumps like that are always a bad sign. The story is disjointed, the characters act irrationally, Reed Richards is no longer a super-genius, Dr. Doom is a lovesick outcast, Ben Grimm is just sort of there, Sue Storm is stripped of all agency (she doesn't even get to go to the "other dimension," instead being relegated to running the controls. She gets her powers - which include supremely bad wigs from the studio-mandated re-shoots and the ability to project impenetrable human hamster balls - as a sort of drive-by) and Johnny Storm - well, he's the Human Torch. Fox doesn't like the movie much and Marvel allowed likenesses of the actors to be used in Punisher #14 and blew them up.

Yep, that's Teller, Bell, and Mara.
In short, this film feels like Fox rushed production in order to keep the rights from reverting to Marvel Studios and handed the film - which needed to succeed in order to reboot the franchise - to an inexperienced director and then didn't provide necessary support, oversight, and marketing.

Oh, wait. That's all true.

And the largest flaw? There's no joy here. The Fantastic Four are Marvel's original team and they were created by Lee and Kirby when characters didn't need to be realistic. They were often silly and downright ridiculous - cheaply printed on low-quality paper, they certainly had no pretensions of being literary. They paved the way for other, deeper stories; this cannot be denied - but the comic books of that time were aimed at a different audience and had different goals from the darker tales now being penned for older audiences. (I've surely rolled my eyes at the portrayal of both "Invisible Girl"[#4 in this link] and "Marvel Girl" in those early runs - wow!) I mean, look at that cover at the top of the post. This is not an angsty, brooding team.

Honestly, this Fantastic Four is one to skip. Don't see it - not now, not on demand, not as a rental. Not as free. You've got better things to do with your time.