Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Waiting 5 Years for The World's End

     Back in 2004, director Edgar Wright released a lower-budget film starring then-unknowns (to American audiences, anyway, unless they had seen the British comedy Spaced) Simon Pegg and Nick Frost about two down-on-their-luck Man Children who get thrown into the middle of a zombie invasion. That film--Shaun of the Dead--was utterly brilliant, filled with lightning-fast and dense levels of jokes and a perfect combination of parody and homage. It's one of my favorite comedies of all time. The three followed that up with 2007's Hot Fuzz, another hilarious creation that did to buddy-cop movies what Shaun did to flesh-eating zombies ones. But this was always going to be a trilogy of like-minded cinema--dubbed the Three Flavours Cornetto--so it was no surprise to their fans when The World's End was announced: Wright would again direct, Pegg and Frost would star, and the trio would be taking on another story of men who have stalled in their growing up--this time with a science-fiction flair.
     But now the viewer has a dilemma: upon watching The World's End, does a huge fan of the cast and director's previous work (me), especially after waiting patiently for over five years, judge the film on its own merits, or as the culmination of one of the best comedy "trilogies" in my lifetime. Because there is no doubt in my mind: The World's End is not as good as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. Or as good as Wright's separate directing effort, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Or as good as Wright's writing partner Joe Cornish's Attack the Block. But if I could take a time machine back to the minute before the lights in the theater slowly dimmed, and then scrub my mind of all expectation and pre-conceived notions and then enjoy the movie as a completely singular experience, The World's End would be really good comedy. But like the robots in the film, I'm controlled. Controlled by this critical voice inside of me, begging to be let out through the words that I'm typing: the final Cornetto chapter is fun and often funny (this time more smiles than outright laughs), featuring a middle portion that is very stellar, but it ultimately becomes a bit repetitive and features a final third (especially the climax) that lacks the grounded-in-reality feeling that anchored the human aspect of Shaun and Fuzz that made those two films so hilarious and heartfelt.
     Okay: I'm finished talking about Shaun and Fuzz. But it had to be done. Pegg stars as Gary, and this time his character has much bigger problems than just losing his girlfriend and low-paying job. He's an alcoholic, and a night nearly twenty years in his past still haunts him: that's the evening when he and his four best mates tried to finish "The Golden Mile", a pub crawl featuring twelve different bars. One pint at each. So he comes up with a great idea: a getting-the-band-back-together style reunion, corralling the old friends (who are almost 40 years old now) to relive the "best night of his life". It isn't easy. Gary is a major dickhead obsessed with his own nostalgia about the good ol' days. His character is borderline unlikable, but the film's set-up provides him with a major shot at redemption.
     It takes some work, but Gary eventually gets his buddies to commit. Great British actors Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman portray three of them, but most notably Nick Frost portrays Andy, a man with a successful career and whose life was completely altered by Gary and the pub crawl back when they were young blokes. All the characters are treading mid-life water in one way or another: a boring marriage, a stalling career, a fixation on a long lost love. But other than Frost's Andy, none of them noticeably stand out. But this part of the film is where The World's End does stand out: like all trademark Wright, the jokes are fast moving and interplay between Pegg and Frost is great, as usual. And the 4 friends' growing dissent about Gary and the sadness about his life is intriguing and worthwhile. However, it's soon clear that the town of Newton Haven, where pub crawl takes place, is not like it used to be. (SPOILER ALERT) Have you ever been back to a place, and you get that feeling that everything is the same but everything is different? It's like that, except nearly everyone you can see has turned into or is being controlled by robot aliens from outer space.
     The set-up is vintage Wright: he loves taking characters with basic human problems and throwing them into a frenetic and beer-fueled barrage of surprise violence and wry humor. Gary goes into the loo to take a wee, and he gets into an altercation with a teenager who turns out to have super-human strength and blue liquid for blood. This fight turns into an all-out brawl with all of the characters and a number of robots. It was really fun and surprising, finishing with signature Nick Frost flourish. The action is really clear and choreographed, and doesn't rely on quick-cut editing to seem fast and confusing. And it's here, just after midway through the film, that The World's End peaks. The rest is similar to what happens after one too many beers: a little tiresome, a little sappy, and some things just don't make a whole lot of sense.
   You could run it through the metaphor machine: the robots are what they are becoming, held down by their tired lives. The town of Newton Haven is Home once Home isn't where you live anymore. But it doesn't delve too far into these ponderings, instead focusing on squishing robots heads and one-liners that are amusing but rarely hilarious. Gary's mission--above all else--is to finish the pub crawl even among the spurts of blue blood, and even with leaving the rest of his friends stranded yet again. Sometimes The World's End feels like it was fueled more by crystal meth than by alcohol, with Wright switching from tearful confessions to robot chase scenes to buddy love within a few seconds of each other. It's scattershot, and much less focused than his previous efforts, but it's still enjoyable.
     The ending is particularly what sealed the deal for me: it takes a few too many left turns that go too far over-the-top and take away from what some of the best aspects of The World's End are--the friendships, the nostalgia, the focus on Gary's alcoholism. The best sci-fi movies of recent years are the ones that live and thrive within their own world with basic human problems and solutions, instead of relying on last minute reveals and exposition. The World's End--at the end--just takes it further than it needs to go. The reason that the three films of Wright's career with Pegg and Frost are dubbed the Three Flavours Cornetto is because each film--like the famous three-flavored ice cream treat--is connected and part of the same overall package, similar to America's Neapolitan brand. But like a container of Neapolitan, there are only two flavors that I love. The other is good...but it just doesn't compare.     (B)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Netflix This: Mud

     You may remember the preview a few months back: it's that one where Matthew McConaughey looks really grimy and there's a dilapidated boat wedged dozens of feet up a group of trees in a remote forest. But it would be a shame to write Mud off as just another average film starring McConaughey--it's much more than that. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who has created two interesting and original American films (2007's Shotgun Stories and 2011's Take Shelter [both starring Michael Shannon, of Boardwalk Empire fame]) already, Mud made its rounds on the film festival circuit in 2012 and had a limited theatrical release earlier this year. A southern tale about two boys coming of age and coming to realizations about life, love and death, Mud is an enjoyable film for just about anyone, a movie that's heartwarming and charming that induces smiles instead of eye rolls.
     A part of Mud's success is due to McConaughey's solid performance. An actor who used to take any romantic comedy role that made men look like fools and an actor that never explored outside of his range, Matt is having somewhat of a moment: 2011 showed that he could thrill and be freaky in The Lincoln Lawyer and the weird-but-watchable Killer Joe, in 2012 we witnessed his snake-like character Dallas in the great Magic Mike, and later this year he portrays an AIDS patient in The Dallas Buyer's Club, fully invested with a 38-pound weight loss. His performance as the titular character in Mud shows that he can transfix an audience with mysterious motives and a thrilling intensity, enchanting us into caring about this southern fairy-tale.
     The plot is all modern-day Mark Twain, focusing on two boys with stressed family lives who like to explore the swamps and bayous of the Mississippi River. Upon sneaking around a seemingly-uninhabited island, they find a boat hanging on the limbs of some tall trees. They climb up and soon realize--by discovering cans of food and porno magazines--that a man has been hiding (or living) inside of the boat. As the boys slowly get to know this island-dweller, they realize (especially Ellis, portrayed by Tye Sheridan in a breakout role) that the man isn't so different from them. He's in love with a girl, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, who doesn't do too much of note), and he's hiding on the island, on the run from the law, waiting for her to meet him so they can sail off into the sunset. Unfortunately for Mud, a murder investigation and a group of thugs trying to track him down throw a wrench into reuniting with "the one that got away". Mud's a southern mystery with a thrilling finale that really hits home due to the film's flood-like slow build.
      The acting is great, that's been established. Especially McConaughey and Sheridan as one of the boys. Fan's of Deadwood may recognize Ellis's dad, Senior--it's Ray McKinnon, the too-early-cancelled show's preacher. He's good too.  Even Micheal Shannon shows up as Galen, the other boy's uncle. But the real star is what director Jeff Nichols can do with a character-driven story. He's got an eye for beautiful imagery, and the southern setting gives him a plethora of picturesque scenes to work with: the bubbling water behind a boat, the setting sun over the Mississippi river, the swaying trees in a light breeze. It makes you feel like you're there, instead of just watching. It cements Jeff Nichols into the list of great American filmmakers.
     Mud walks a very fine line between being heartfelt and a little too saccharine, but luckily that line is very rarely crossed. The story of adolescence, boys on the brink of becoming men, and men who still haven't given up on the notions of boyhood love, is one that anybody can find interesting and watchable. Add a crime story that's unpredictable and a violent climax, and Mud becomes one of the better films of 2013, a year that needs far more films like this and far less than what we're seeing most every week in the local cinema.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Matt Damon, Leader of Occupy Elysium

     Back in 2009, director Neil Blomkamp burst on the scene like one of the bodies that he is so good at exploding into mush with District 9, one of my favorite films of that year and a wonderfully original sci-fi ride. Starring another newbie, Sharlto Copley, the film was filled with a great blend of unique action and pertinent social commentary that made you think as often as it made you squirm. Needless to say, I was excited for Elysium, Blomkamp's newest sci-fi creation (and only second film total). Starring Matt Damon at his most ripped and badass, Elysium is still a solid ride, and it showcases two important points: Blomkamp is a director that is sure to please audiences for years to come, and the film--though never reaching the surprising heights of District 9--is a sometimes-corny-sometimes-exciting futuristic actioneer that does just enough to satiate the hunger of summer moviegoers looking for something a little bit different.
     Matt Damon is very good in Elysium, and he's really showing his range in 2013 (just take a look at HBO's Behind the Candelabra). Portraying Max, an ex-con factory worker living on a ravaged and derelict-ridden Earth, he holds the screen better than any action star. Sure, the film is set in the year 2154, seemingly very far into the future, but the more realistic visions of Elysium seem merely decades away. A dilapidated shithole, this future Los Angeles is desert-like and overpopulated, with criminals and a militarized robot police force controlling the streets. The human population feels almost hopeless (a particularly amusing scene with Max and his parole officer comes to mind). Almost, because of a glimmer not too far above the Earth's atmosphere.
     You see, the 1% ditched Earth for greener pastures, the Halo-esque space station called Elysium, with its luxurious McMansions, gorgeous eco-system, and fake-breasted bikini-clad women who sip martinis and speak in French. Particularly of note are most of the homes up on the planet-esque space station: most are equipped with Med-Pods, futuristic MRI machines that can cure any illness within a few seconds. Testicular cancer? Zap, it's gone. Broken bones? Poof, they are mended. There's one catch: you have to be a citizen of Elysium to use one of these machines--it reads a sort-of-barcode on users' wrists before they lay down on top of the slick white pad.
     This wouldn't be an exciting science fiction film, filled with powerful gun fights and connections with our own society if we didn't have a clash between the mega-rich of Elysium and the down-trodden earthlings living in complete squalor. In walks Max, who as a child (with his semi-girlfriend, Frey) dreamed of one day living in the peace of the outer colony. He eventually has a really bad day at work. Not like one of us, where if the coffee is warm instead of hot it can ruin a whole morning. Max accidentally gets caught in a chamber at the factory and takes a lethal dose of radiation. He is given five days to live by an emotionless robot. The owner of the factory, John Carlyle (who also has connections to the most powerful people on Elysium) couldn't care less. So Max only has one choice: hook up with Spider (Wagner Moura), a smuggler, and Julio (Diego Luna), a trusted friend, and steal a ride to Elysium to get to a med pod.
      But Getting up there isn't easy: Jodie Foster portrays the bitchy and dangerous Secretary Jessica Delacourt, who uses lethal force to prevent unauthorized access to Elysium and has some very important plans of her own. Max also is pretty weak since the workplace incident, so Spider hooks him up with a spider-esque Eco-skeleton that makes Max nearly as much machine as man. His old love interest, Frey (Alice Braga) also adds some tension to the proceedings--there's nothing like an action hero whose love interest is in peril. Her daughter having Leukemia poses a roadblock too. Can Max get up to Elysium to save himself? Or can he do even more than that, saving--dare I say?--the fate of planet Earth?
      Good set-up, but the action is hit-or-miss. Sharlto Copley is the most villainous character in the film, portraying Kruger, one of Secretary Delacourt's secret agents left on Earth. He sure does relish the opportunity, but most of his lines were kinda corny, the equivalent of consistently saying "Come at me, Bro!" every time he's near Damon's character. The action's filmed much less impressively than District 9, too. It constantly relies on slow-motion (tolerable) and occasionally delves into super quick-cut editing, the kind where you can't tell who is landing what punch within the confusing mish-mash (intolerable). Still: the charisma of Damon, Copley, and the cool gadgets that explode bodies into pink mist and chunks make it just satisfying enough.
      Damon does his best. He's very watchable. But Elysium can be a bit heavy-handed at times (I'm hesitant to use that term but it definitely fits here). The notions of the lack of health-care for many citizens and the constant battle between the 1%-99% are obviously relevant, but Elysium doesn't delve quite far enough to make those notions have any lasting impact. The ending--in particular--was pretty predictable and cheesy. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter: Near the end of summer movie season, we've seen so much garbage pass through the cinemas that any attempt at something pertinent and exciting is admirable--I just wish it had been a little more pertinent...and a little more exciting.     (B)

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Wolverine: Iron Man Logan

     Though X-Men Origins: Wolverine is known as one of the worst comic book films of recent memory, full of cliches and a plot that was predictable and a little tiresome, it was still far from terrible. And that's for one main reason: Hugh Jackman's portrayal as the character with razor-sharp claws. Jackman is one of those actors that is always watchable--his intensity, humor, and bursting-with-muscle-biceps cause both men and women to swoon and whoop with pleasure. So sure, viewers were ready for more. Only four years after his own origin story, we get another Wolverine film, one that brings in a new director and a fresher setting (Japan) to gash some life into a character that was (barely) growing a little stale. They mostly succeeded: although The Wolverine feels more like a side story instead of a brand new film and the final act succumbs to typical superhero-film-style overload, it's a fun time at the movies featuring Jackman at his sharpest and a bevy of solid slower character scenes and exciting action.
    When The Wolverine was first announced, the studio and Jackman wanted a fresher director that would inject some originality and innovation into the superhero franchise. So they signed on Darren Aronofsky, who worked with Jackman on The Fountain and has created some incredibly memorable modern cinema: Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan. Unfortunately, it didn't pan out--Aronofsky wasn't willing to be away for his family the nearly-year-long shoot in Japan. In walked director James Mangold, whose wide array of films (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) impressed the studio.
      The Wolverine is based upon one of the more cherished stories involving Wolverine, Frank Miller's comic book arc from way back in 1982. It's not exactly what you'd expect: by focusing on Logan's constant inner battle about his own immortality and his persistent nightmares about losing his one true love, this Wolverine (though filled with plenty of raw battles) is a more thoughtful affair. At the start, Wolverine is imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp just before an atom bomb drops. When the explosion happens, he saves a soldier about the get annihilated by taking the brunt of the blast. The soldier--foreshadowing many events to come in the film--then witnesses Logan's incredible healing ability, the burning skin and wounds sizzling back to perfect form.
     But the rest of the film takes place decades later, when Logan--now living in a cave like a derelict--gets recruited to say goodbye to the soldier (now an extremely rich man on his deathbed). The man's one dying wish is to thank the Wolverine for saving him many years in the past (or is it?). Following Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a badass Japanese broad with serious hand-to-hand fighting ability, Logan travels to Japan. Clearly, once there, he gets mixed up in a vicious concoction of Yakuza gangsters, protecting a Princess, his regeneration ability going haywire, and a slithering bitch of a "nurse" by the name of Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).
     Much of the second half of the film deals with Logan on the run, finally facing a question that he has never had to deal with before: when you've had immortality for so long, and that gets taken away, should you welcome death...or still fight with every last breath (or sharp claw)? A lot of parallels can be drawn with another Marvel favorite, Iron Man, specifically in Tony Stark's malfunctioning energy core heart and--like in the first film--a conclusion involving a mega-mech warrior creature and all-powerful billionaire. But The Wolverine still has plenty up its sleeve. Most of the action is fast-paced and occasionally innovative, like a fight atop a speeding bullet train and a very cool and memorable pre-climax surprise involving hundreds of arrows.
     What The Wolverine does wonderfully is make Logan finally feel human instead of a completely indestructible. It boosts some much needed actual tension into the proceedings. But still, it falls into some of the same traps as many other super hero films. The number of characters and villains sometimes becomes a chore to keep tally of (especially in the nearly half-hour long final section of the film) and one can't help but wonder what this could have been with Darren Aronofsky's unique cinematic vision (not that Mangold doesn't do a completely good and serviceable job). Still, there's no stopping Jackman's incredible charisma--it's easy to tell that he completely relishes this role. I just wish this had been a truly definitive Wolverine film instead of The Wolverine Travels to Japan.     (B)