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.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Hunt & Holmes

So another installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise is out. I don't have a lot to say on this one - if you liked the four previous ones, you'll like this one. It's not the best place to jump into the franchise, but if you choose to do so in order to go with your friends to the movies, you'll be fine - we're not talking about a film franchise that has all that many nuances to begin with, after all.

MI is big, colorful, silly, summer popcorn fun. There are gadgets galore, a motorcycle chase that looks so much like the speeder bike scene from Return of the Jedi that I was looking for Ewoks, and some improbable plot points. (Trust me - a CIA black op in broad daylight in Havana would get noticed. Cuba is a tad sensitive about such things.) Some of the dialogue is lazy - "I'm not ready!" "Get ready!" - but that's probably nit-picking. I don't think it's nit-picking, however, to point out that the soundtrack is a textbook example of "Due to a hackneyed storyline, I don't think the audience will know what to feel, so cue them with the soundtrack, would you?" Gak.

Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt can clamber around a fly system with the agility of a spider monkey, although I spent enough time backstage to know that none of that scene - NONE of it - could happen in any competent professional theatre, much less the Vienna State Opera.  While there is some criticism of the film, most filmgoers and critics are loving it. Me, I think it's too much cotton candy - a fun treat, but if you try to make a meal out of it, you'll wind up with an aching tummy.

On the other end of the spectrum is the new BBC Films Mr. Holmes, featuring Sir Ian McKellen as an elderly Sherlock Holmes. (He also plays a younger Sherlock and the difference between the versions reminds me again of just how amazing and subtle an actor McKellen is.) This Sherlock is 93 and has long since retired from Baker Street to the Sussex countryside to tend bees (Not wasps! Very different things, wasps) and live a quiet life. He's trying to solve the case that drove him to retirement, and it's very difficult, as his memory is fading. For someone who lives on pure intellect to the degree that Holmes does, this is nothing short of terrifying. The criminally-underrated Laura Linney plays his long-suffering housekeeper who was widowed by WW2 and Milo Parker is extraordinary as her son Roger. Mr. Holmes is a movie that is comfortable with taking its own sweet time to unfold and the story is a rich one. This is a film that deserves to be seen. It may take a little searching to find it, but - trust me - this lush, thoughtful film is worth a road trip if you prefer nourishment to cotton candy.