Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cliché Cowboys and Aggressive Aliens

     I've always had a soft spot in my heart (along with a soft-on) for the wonderful slow-burning stories of the Western genre. The basic plots are always timeless, and they evoke a time past where everyday life was much simpler and you settled debts with coins or a revolver. Between Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in the amazing Unforgiven, Guy Pearce in the incredible and surreal The Proposition, and Jeff Bridges in last year's remake of True Grit, Westerns have had a resurgence in quality and awards potential during my lifetime. This is why I had such high aspirations for Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens, which I was hoping would be some of the best summer entertainment I'd see this year. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be: Cowboys and Aliens, although entertaining enough for the general public, left me wanting much, much more. Filled with Western and Alien genre cliches and I've-seen-it-all-before action sequences, Cowboys and Aliens tastes like the leftovers of a tasty but underwhelming concoction.
     None of the fault lies on the actor's shoulders, that much is sure. Daniel Craig plays a "stranger" who has just woken up and isn't quite sure who he is, where he is, or what his purpose in life is. But he does have a mysterious bracelet around his left wrist, and he's one bad-ass mo-fo (that part is quickly known, as he dispatches three or four cronies armed with guns in the first five minutes). The Stranger (whose name is Jake), saunters towards the nearest town, presumably to find out what has happened to him. While there, he manages to embarrass a cocky little prick named Percy, the stereotypical my-father-runs-this-town-so-I-can-do-what-I-want cowardly piss ant, portrayed by Paul Dano, who was incredibly more effective in the western-themed There Will Be Blood. Percy's dad, played by a gruff Harrison Ford, doesn't take no for an answer, especially when he learns that Jake is a wanted criminal that has harmed him in the past. This first bit of story has plenty of potential, with some interesting bit characters (Sam Rockwell's Doc and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff come to mind), but the story falters once the Alien ships start causing trouble.
     The film's problems begin with the Aliens (which is basically the story and screenplay) and end with Jon Favreau's competent yet straightforward direction. Just as you think Jake might be totally screwed in regards to his situation, Aliens show up (the townsfolk call them Demons, because what else could it be when the notion of extraterrestrials doesn't even exist), and his bracelet kicks into action, revealing itself to be a powerful weapon against this inhuman foe. Jake and his once-enemy townsfolk go on the run, tracking a creature far from town and ultimately coming up with a plan to try and destroy this unknown, ruthless force. Along the way, they clash with native Indians and Jake's old criminal crew (one of which is portrayed by the wonderful Walton Goggins), but--ultimately--none of this really matters, because Jake's mystic bracelet always seems to kick in when he gets into trouble. Part of this is why the screenplay could use some tweaks: you never really get to know these characters past their stereotypes. Jake is mysterious and powerful, and obviously has a soft heart buried beneath his confusion and sadness. Ford's character is old and battle-worn, but you just know that he's looking for a chance to show his tenderness, especially with a young boy who has recently lost his grandfather. Even (the great) Sam Rockwell's arc is predictable: throughout the film he's sort of a bumbling and incompetent man, who tries to be accurate when practicing his rifle but never hits his target. Do you think he hits his "target" when it counts?
     The Aliens, in regards to their look and ruthlessness, are pretty cool, but the battle scenes involving them failed to stir much excitement or emotions in me. And that's mostly Favreau's fault: in both Iron Man's (specifically the first one), he staged action set pieces with equal parts humor and pomp. Here they're just same old shit. Aliens were scarier in Alien and War of the Worlds, and Cowboys were more realistic and entertaining in Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma. Overall, that's the main problem with Cowboys and Aliens: its bits and pieces never cohere into one complete, fun unit. All of this has been done better before, and with the talent involved in this film, any ol' gunslinger could call Cowboys and Aliens a mild travesty.     (C)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on Harry Potter's intense climax, that same climax flying at your face in 3-D, and the unfortunate plight of this blog for the next 6 months

     I have never read a word of any of the Harry Potter books. No, not because I think they are pussy or poorly written or only for children. It's because I watched the first few films in the series without having read the books, and the trend just continued from there. I'm sure they are good enough, and maybe someday I will read them with my kids, but for now, I'm satisfied with the most successful (monetarily) franchise in film history. It's also why I don't really feel the need to write a full review of the final chapter. Instead of writing paragraphs full of back story and character names that I can't even spell without looking up, keeping it simpler is pertinent: I'm not sure if I ever loved any Harry Potter movie, but every single one of them was entertaining enough. And the final chapter was the darkest and most emotional of them all. If Deathly Hallows Part 1 was a film filled with travel and set-up, Part 2 is a two hour epic battle between Harry and Voldemort that does not disappoint. It's fun. It's sad. Above all, it's a satisfying ending to an epic film franchise.  (B+)

     I will tell you one thing though: I am getting fucking sick and tired of 3-D. From this day forward, I am boycotting any 3-D film that wasn't originally filmed in 3-D (Such as the latest Jackass or Avatar). 3-D--in the majority of films--leaves the image blurry, dark and muddy. I'm tired of it, and many others are too. Throughout the country, there's an underground movement of cinema lovers that refuse to see films in 3-D due to the sub-par image quality and hassle of having to wear bulky, dorky-looking glasses. After seeing the 3-D IMAX Harry Potter (a week after seeing the latest Transformers in 3-D), I'm taking a stand; and you should too. Stop letting film companies charge extra prices for lesser image quality just to make an extra buck. It doesn't and never has improved anything. That is, until 3-D porn starts entering the market. That's something I'm willing to see.

     On a final note, the day is here: the NFL lockout is finally over! It's been a nerve racking few months for professional football fans, but it's official. Correspondingly, I just joined my 5th league today. Consequently, I will be spending a lot more time reading and analyzing anything football for the next 6 months, and one of my hobbies is going to take a hit. There's never enough time to do everything when outside of the hell that is a 40-hour work week. Some of what will be sacrificed will be the time I spend on this blog. I will still write a review for every film that I see in the theater, and you can count on my top 10 list at the end of the year, but other than that, who really knows? The time has come to see if Vick and the Vaporubs can 3-peat.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Netflix This:

Last Cup
     Documentaries are great for a myriad of reasons: they tell the story of an interesting person's life, an important political or social issue, the savagery of war, or a world-changing event in history. Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong is a documentary about an obscure (in the eyes of many non-college goers) sport that involves drinking copious amounts of beer and throwing ping-pong balls into cups. Like any entertaining documentary, Last Cup takes a subject that the majority of the world population doesn't give a shit about and makes it exciting, funny, and emotional. And that's mainly due to the human touch: similar to the wonderful King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (which followed the underdogs and the champion at professional arcade Donkey Kong playing), Last Cup tracks a select few twosome groups as they vie for the top spot in the  World Series of Beer Pong (which, at this point in time, pays out $50,000). That's the simple plot. Cameras follow these people who have decided to make it their life's mission to travel around to various bars and events, training to reach the apex of plunking ability.
     For the uninitiated (any old people who are reading this) the basics of Beer Pong (also known as Beirut) are pretty straightforward. They need to be, since after a few games your buzz may outweigh your hand-eye coordination by a large margin. You have a table with two distinct sides. You have a team of two on each side. You line a pyramid of cups half full with beer in each and take turns throwing a pong ball into the the other team's cups. Drink the beer in the cup when a ball is made. If you and your teammate both make the ball, you get to shoot again. And boy are the characters in this film awesome at it. You've got Tone from New Jersey, a roided freak with rage to match his passion for making clutch shots and playing shirtless. You've got The Iceman, a morbidly obese Jonah Hill-lookalike (seriously, he looks exactly like him) who makes a risky decision to take an eccentric rookie partner to the World Series. Shawn takes it to another level of obsessiveness: a skillful computer engineer, he designs a program and tracks every single shot and analyzes his statistics for hours after every match.
     These people and their unbelievable love of the game is entertaining enough, but add the beer and things get really interesting: spectators get in for free, and as time passes, beer and emotions flow. Crowds scream at competitors as they shoot, and they especially take a cruel (but funny) heckling to the shirtless Tone. It isn't all just fun and games though--there is real drama here. These guys have been training for months for this moment, and they act as if their livelihood depends on it. And that's ultimately what Last Cup is about: although some may find the plight of these men pathetic and joke-worthy, it's better to be the best at something than be the best at nothing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

No Transformation for the Transformers Franchise

     Are you feeling bored on this lazy Sunday afternoon? Maybe you've got some free time after a long 9-5 workday at some point this week? Maybe you're thinking about going to your local cinema to check out the new (of course in "glorious" 3-D) worldwide hit, Transformers: Dark of the Moon? My advice: don't. Instead, grab a group of friends, head to the nearest scrap yard and spend $15 each (the price of IMAX admission) on various pieces of jagged, big and colorful junk metal. Head home, go out to your back yard, and smash these pieces together as fast and as loud as you can. It'll help if you utter tired, cliche catchphrases in a deep, booming voice. Have your hottest female friend run around looking stupid, preferably in a pair of sexy panties or a low-cut shirt that exposes most of her perfect breasts (not that you'll actually get to see them; this is "family" fun after all). That would be money more smartly spent. Transformers: Dark of the Moon--though better than the atrocious Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen--is an overlong and incoherent mess of a film, stuffed with a who-cares-plot, hilariously unfunny humor and a confusing assortment of action set pieces.
     Things begin in the past: we learn that mankind's mission to the moon was actually a secret plot to investigate an alien crash landing that occurred on the "dark side" (hence the film's title). We get a lot of old and real news clips intersected with the alternate version of what really happened on the moon. This alternate history plot starts off cool enough, but things go quickly downhill from there: this crashed ship was carrying the "good" transformers away from their home planet so they could continue their struggle against the evil bots. The human beings, led as always by the annoying Sam Witwicky (a role that Shia Ladoof must be dead tired of playing by now) are as disposable as ever: there's his new supermodel girlfriend (forget the Transformers, to watch these films your biggest suspension of disbelief has to be this little shit getting chicks this hot), the hard-ass government agent played by Frances McDormand (clearly just waiting for a call from the Coen brothers), a couple of elite warriors portrayed by Tyrese and Raylan Givens' twin brother, and Patrick Dempsey in a villainous role. Actin' class this ain't.
     Enough about the humans. Clearly, they are not what these films are about. They are about millions of special effects dollars spent on intricate transformations of robots and the big metal battles that ensue. Unfortunately, these battles are as emotionless as Sam's new girlfriend's Botoxed face. (Sometimes I wonder why these films make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, but then I remember that millions of people watch Fox News on a daily basis.) Obviously, a lot of the problems with the huge Transformer fights fall right into the lap of director Michael Bay. This dude, who used to make entertaining action films such as The Rock, has clearly got an enormous ego to match his rock-hard erection for gigantic explosions, bangs and clangs. His trilogy of Transformers films are as predictable as his tiring and head-scratching fight scenes. Step 1: show hot girl or Sam with his cringe-inducing parents, usually with a terrible rock ballad playing in the background. Step 2: have important people or government agents talk about the fate of Earth and how it is in peril for one reason or another, usually reasons that don't make much sense. Step 3: Show a loud action set piece showing any combination of humans, good and bad Transformers, and exploding cars and buildings. Repeat.
     These movies actually had potential to be entertaining. With a little more narrative coherency, a more emotional and original way to portray each machine's plight and battle, and actual, real humor, the Transformers franchise could have been taken in a much more rewarding direction. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, like its predecessors, left me feeling empty. Lately, internet rumors have stated that this will be Michael Bay's last journey into the Transformers universe and that Jason Statham may take over the lead actor role, two sparks that might ignite a fire into this franchise (we can hope). But for Bay, his trilogy involving Transformers was a massive success. He's wiping his ass with $100 bills, and I'm stuck in the theater's public restroom using one-ply.     (D+)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What You'll Want to be Watching:


    The originality and exciting nature of Nicolas Winding Refn's direction has been discussed before: starting with the Pusher trilogy and following with the great and insane Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn's films are (from now on, especially) films in which I totally get excited for. This won't change anytime soon when on September 16th, Refn's film Drive gets released into cinemas. It is easily one of my most (if not the most) anticipated picture of 2011. Early word is that it should be one of yours too. But the direction clearly isn't the only thing to get pumped for: it's Tobias Grindal I mean Ryan Gosling in an action-movie role. Lately, Gosling has been showing us all what it's like being a fucking great actor who can make any film better, something that anyone would be well aware of if they had seen 2001's The Believer when it was released. 
      If you've seen Refn's other work, it's easy to surmise that the plot of Drive has potential to be exciting and ultra-violent: based on a 2005 book of the same name by James Sallis, Drive deals with a Hollywood stunt driver (played by Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminal activity. Things get crazy when he realizes a contract has been put on his life after a heist has gone wrong. It definitely has some potential in the right hands; this film is clearly in the right hands. The novel, at only 158 pages, was a fast, noir-ish thriller with mystery and extreme violence. Some say Gosling's character reminds them of old school movie heroes, who don't talk much but speak with their actions. Early reviews say those actions are totally badass and shocking. I've tried to stay away from specific plots points about the film, because I want the suspense to be totally unspoiled. Like many old westerns and Samurai films, the action is supposed to unexpected and brutal.
     I am expecting to be in love with Drive when it is released. Every aspect of it sounds great. Take a look at the co-stars: one is Bryan Cranston (known around these parts as Walter White). Another is Christina Hendricks, better known as the big-titted, huge-assed Joan from Mad Men. The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles looks to be another "co-star". They are intense images that are not often seen in films. Since many of the scenes take place inside of a car, Refn employs a "biscuit rig", which is a camera system that allows its actors to focus on acting instead of driving. Drive opened at the 2011 Cannes film festival to significantly rave reviews, with many saying the film has potential to become an international hit instead of just a noir geek-gasm that it will definitely be. I'm pumped. You should be too. See you September 16th.