Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 2013

MAN OF STEEL  (2013)
    This isn’t a bad movie, filling in those years between the infant Clark Kent—done to perfection in the 1978 original—and his joining the Daily Planet, yet the obvious question remains unanswered: Why?

      Executive producer Christopher Nolan tries to “Batman” the “Superman” franchise, but, after all the fisticuffs and massive destruction of Smalltown and Metropolis I could only wonder why it was necessary to resurrect this Depression-era hero. This version’s Clark (Henry Cavill of “Immortals”) is a bit more introspective, a bit more troubled, but essentially he’s the same soft-spoken, gee-whiz All-American boy played by George Reeves in the 1950s TV series and Christopher Reeve in the quartet of films in the late ‘70s and 1980s. In other words, “Man of Steel” never feels like anything more than an excuse to tap into the superhero craze in search of box-office gold. I wanted a reinvented Superman, but director Zack Snider (“300”) and screenwriter David S. Goyer do little more than tweak the mythology most of us have known since we were children.

       Cavill, who possess the same Greek-god, chiseled-out-marble face and body as Christopher Reeve, offers an adequate, if underplayed Clark, doing his best work as he kicks around from job to job as a young man before he learns of his true identity. He is certainly a sharp contrast to the wild-eyed Zod (Michael Shannon), the demonic Krypton general who killed Superman’s father and now is pursuing the son. As for father Jor-El (Russell Crowe filling Marlon Brando’s shoes), he seems overly helpful—nearly essential—considering that he’s but a hologram. Clark’s Earth-bound parents are well played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, who delivers the film’s best performance; I could see her scoring an Oscar nod for the role.

    The film also invests Lois Lane with more professional gravitas than the character has ever previously possessed. Amy Adams’ Lois, here a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, first encounters Clark, and learns of his powers, while covering a strange underwater sighting in Antarctica. Romance is put on hold as Lois and the reluctant Superman attempt to foil Zod’s plot to level Earth for his own needs.

     Again, this film is probably as good as it could have been—though every scene involving Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and other staffers is pure corn—but it sticks to the myth too closely, not coming close to the forward-thinking renovations done to the recent “Batman” or “Star Trek” (see below) franchises.  

   The re-launch of this iconic franchise was one of the most entertaining and well directed films of 2009 and its sequel is nearly as good.

     In the new film, bad boy Jim Kirk temporarily loses command of the Enterprise when he ignores every Starship regulation in the book (what a surprise!) to save a doomed planet and then Spock’s life. This character-building opening sequence is a spectacular, “Indiana Jones”-like reintroduction to the Enterprise crew, nearly a mini-movie unto itself; they’ll be showing parts of this when J.J. Abrams accepts his lifetime achievement Oscar in 2040.

     When a former Starship commander (the icy Benedict Cumberbatch, the latest Sherlock Holmes in the current British TV series) goes rogue, head man Marcus (Peter Weller) puts Kirk back in the Enterprise to track him down on a Klingon-controlled planet.

     It turns out that this bad guy is no ordinary madman—he’s the infamous Khan (as in “The Wrath of Khan,” the second, and best, of the original film series with Ricardo Montalban as the evildoer)—who is not only seemingly indestructible but is always one step ahead of everyone else.

      Like the first film in this franchise, the screenwriters (returning writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, along with Damon Lindelof) put the unlikely friendship between Earthling Kirk and Vulcan Spock, again expertly played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, at the center of the story, a smart counterpart to the frantic, over-the-top action.

     Playing a key role in part two is the always entertaining Scotty (Simon Pegg), chief engineer and comic foil to Kirk who ends up quitting in a huff but then works with our clever captain from the outside. Though the film doesn’t slow down long enough for anything close to a romance (except for the Kirk-Spock lovefest), Kirk has eyes for the sultry new science officer (Alice Eve of “She’s Out of My League”) who proves crucial to the operation’s success.

     I was disappointed that the film’s final action sequence was a ridiculously unbelievable fist fight between Khan and Spock as they leap from one Earth shuttle vehicle to another. Suddenly, Spock, forced to play a Kirk-like role, fights as if he spends his weekends in roadside taverns. The world needs that Vulcan logic, not another pointy-eared brawler.

      But it’s easy to forgive because of the manner that Abrams has stayed true to the original while making a first-rate action-adventure film. The key difference between “Star Trek” and “Man of Steel” is that in “Star Trek” the characters have become more complex, more interesting in their 2013 version, while Superman remains an icon stuck in time.

         There are not many films I see on the big screen without having at least a basic knowledge of the plot and its stars beforehand. Without boring you with the details, I walked into “This Is the End” without the faintest idea of what the movie was about or who was in it: For all I knew, I was about to see a Yugoslavian crime thriller. Not quite.

       You can imagine my surprise when Seth Rogen appeared on screen using his own name, as did the other actors. For a good 20 minutes I thought Rogen or his director of choice Judd Apatow had made a documentary on the posse of actors who populate the raunchy comedies that have taken over Hollywood.

      When Jay Baruchel (in “Knocked Up” with Rogan and star of the underrated “She’s Out of My League”) shows up from out of town, he and Rogan hang out and then visit the new fortress-like home of James Franco, who is hosting a stereotypical Hollywood party filled with egotism, pretense, entitlement and, of course, sex, drugs and alcohol.     

     This smorgasbord of over-the-top Hollywood excess is tested with the arrival of the Biblical apocalypse in all its glory: fire, brimstone, the earth opening up, monster-like devils and, for the worthy few, the rapture. The actors, also Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Emma Watson and, for one very weird scene, Channing Tatum, depict cartoonish, bad-behavior clichés of themselves before and after the end is near.

     Co-writer-directors Rogen and childhood buddy Evan Goldberg (who contributed to “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”), who first explored this story in their short film “Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse,” fill the screen with so much outrageous idiocy that it’s hard to know where to look. While working for the cheapest laugh and the grossest sight gag, the pair manages to pull off, with a group of actors willing to do anything, a very pointed commentary on the indulgences of the new generation of movie stars.

      While it’s not much more than an extended, R-rated “Saturday Night Live” skit, I was both entertained and impressed with its daring writing and performances and, ultimately, glad that I had stumbled into the showing.

THE FALL (2006)
    Even the most stunning visuals grow tedious without a compelling story attached. This film, a gargantuan production filmed in more than a dozen countries over three or four years, offers so many exquisite images that claims that it contains no computer-generated images is questionable. Nearly every frame of this fantasy-adventure seems destined for a poster-sized reproduction tacked to a college freshman’s dorm room.

     Producer and director Tarsem Singh is a well-known director of TV ads and videos whose first venture into film was the sadistically violent, hard-to-watch “The Cell” (2000) with Jennifer Lopez as the unlikely star. While that film was also all about the look, it was just a warm-up for the kaleidoscope of colors presented in “The Fall.” Singh also directed 2011’s “Immortals,” starring current Superman Henry Cavill and last year’s “Mirror, Mirror.”

     “The Fall” has a promising set-up, as young immigrant girl Alexandria (played by a hard-to-understand Romanian actress Catinca Untaru) meets a fellow patient in a Los Angeles hospital. Roy (Lee Pace) is a silent-movie stuntman bedridden with a spinal injury after a nasty fall during a movie shoot. In a ruse to win the affections of the girl so that she’ll steal morphine for him, Roy launches into an epic tale of five men who are bent on revenge against a Spanish governor named Odious (subtlety is not this film’s strong suit).

     While Roy recites the tall tale, the imaginative visualization comes from the young mind of Alexandria, which lends to a somewhat jumbled, incongruent story that jumps from one spectacular site to another without transitions. It also allows a “Wizard of Oz”-like casting in which the patients and staff at the hospital to show up as characters in Roy’s story. Despite all this cleverness, about halfway through the picture, I stopped paying attention to the details.

      There’s a love story of sorts in the fantasy tale that never really catches fire and a back story about Alexandria’s family that is never made clear; Singh seems to see words as just the excuse to conjure up perfectly composed, ravishing images. If he ever hooks up with a good screenwriter and finds the right balance between words and visuals, he may create something quite special. “The Fall” is something to see, just don’t look for meaning beyond its startling palette.

     In an eerie coincidence, this movie arrived at my home the day James Gandolfini died. Though this fine actor will always be best remembered for his portrayal of the complex mob boss Tony Soprano, he’s done some excellent film work, including in this tepid take on mid-1960s rock ‘n’ roll dreams.

     Gandolfini, reunited with “Sopranos” creator David Chase, writing and directing his first feature, plays the unhappy, angry father whose son becomes obsessed with pop music after seeing the Rolling Stones on “The Hollywood Palace” television show in 1964.

      That same appearance inspired the film’s music director and “Sopranos” alumni Steven Van Zandt to form a band; later we see the young man buying Little Steven’s favorite album, the Stones’ “12x5.”

      As the father-son disputes escalate, Douglas’ (John Magaro) band starts to find its niche doing covers of the blues-influenced hits by British invasion bands. Unfortunately, Chase directs the film at such a leisurely pace (forgetting, it seems, that he’s making a feature not a miniseries) that the inherit energy of the story never comes through. He has managed to make playing in a rock band seems boring.

       The usual band disagreements (John Huston’s grandson Jack plays the rebellious guitarist), along with a rather predictable romance between Douglas and Grace (Bella Heathcote, possessing that big-eyed look of the 1960s), feel lifted from a better movie. The scenes between Gandolfini and Magaro are the only real reason to watch “Not Fade Away,” especially when the father reveals a dark secret to his son over an expensive Italian dinner.

      Gandolfini could be an explosive, intense actor but it was his sad eyes and his ability to communicate a character’s internal struggles that set him apart. Among his most interesting film work can be found in “True Romance” (1993), “Night Falls in Manhattan” (1996), “The Mexican” (2001), “All the King’s Men” (2006) and, most recently, in “In the Loop” (2009) as the profane general and in last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty” as the CIA director.

      As for “Not Fade Away,” the music is great—no one knows ‘60s music like Little Steven—and the story is well worth telling, but this version never finds its voice or the energy that was at the heart of what was the birth of rock music taking place in garages and basements all over America.

    For pure historical entertainment value, the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate and his handlers’ attempts to education the Alaska governor is hard to top. The question of how much of this HBO movie actually happened is up for debate; it is based on the book, by journalists Mark Halprin and John Heilemann, which covered all aspects of the campaign, not just Palin’s role, and was criticized as unfair by all parties, but not challenged factually. That’s usually a sign that the writers’ sources were pretty good.

     Also, this portrayal of Palin (a spot-on Julianne Moore) fits in with her public persona and speeches. At the center of the film are the frantic behind-the-scenes run-ups to the Charles Gibson (on ABC) and Katie Couric (on CBS) interviews with the VP candidate as campaign adviser Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson at his best) attempts to prepare Palin for the spotlight.

     Schmidt, as the man who convinced a desperate McCain (lookalike Ed Harris) to select Palin, quickly discovers that not only is the candidate ignorant of how the federal government works and lacks the most basic knowledge of foreign affairs, but she has convinced herself that she knows what’s best for the McCain campaign.

     What Palin lacks in understanding, she makes up for with sheer, and unearned, confidence. She represents the typical contemporary politician, whose personal story trumps their ability (and qualifications) to make informed decisions.

    The movie manages to be both hilarious and frightening as it becomes clear that in the middle of the worst financial crisis of our time, Palin doesn’t know what the Federal Reserve Bank does or, while tackling a question on the Iraqi War coalition, thinks that Queen Elizabeth runs the British government.

    Harrelson, Moore and Harris all give thoughtful and very believable performances, with Moore bringing balance to what could have been a hatchet job on Palin. The movie shows her to be a sincere and hardworking politician even though she’s been dropped into the deep end of the pool.

    “Game Change,” directed by comedy director Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents” but also “Recount,” about the Gore-Bush fiasco), makes it clear that the reason someone so utterly unqualified was selected is that the American voters, equally ignorant of issues or public policy, want campaign surprises and interesting personalities, as if the presidential campaign is just another reality show. What did most voters really know about Barack Obama other than his amazing life story and his public speaking ability?

      Nothing is more depressing than seeing the messy reality of what should be a serious and important process—it’s like the realization that the great and powerful Oz is just an old guy with a speaker system. If you’re not already a total cynic in regards to election campaigns, avoid “Game Change”; it will definitely push you off the cliff even as you can’t stop laughing.

      While Helen Hunt may not be the first actress to receive an Oscar nomination for a role she appeared fully naked, I believe it is the first time anyone has been nominated because they appeared nude.

       Hunt certainly gives a good performance as Cheryl, a sex therapist who bonds with patient Mark (John Hawkes, a 2010 Oscar nominee for “Winter’s Bone”), a victim of polio with little mobility even when he’s outside the iron lung he relies on. But without the nudity I seriously doubt it would have even been noticed by the Academy. Though the voters do tend to reward veteran actors (especially an Oscar winner; she was best actress for “As Good as it Gets”) for out-of-the-box roles, such as Willem Dafoe in “Shadow of the Vampire,” Laura Linney in “Kinsey,” William Hurt in “A History of Violence,” Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There” and Jackie Earle Haley in “Little Children,” this one seems to be a real stretch.

     The extensive nudity and realistic sex scenes (though, this being Hollywood, we only see Mark above the waist) make the film an intimate experience, but, for me, it felt a bit too voyeuristic. I really didn’t need to see Hunt in the all together to understand her job or the relationship she develops with Mark. Maybe I’m just an ageist, but I’d rather actresses and actors on the down side of 50 keep their pants and shirts on, thank you.

     After a caregiver whom he has fallen for leaves, Mark, at age 38, decides it’s time to lose his virginity. After humorous consultations with his understanding priest (William H. Macy), he decides to hire a sex surrogate. I believe he had some moral objection to just paying for a call girl and I’m positive he didn’t do any price comparisons (that could have made for an amusing scene), but I’m sure Cheryl wasn’t cheap.

    The plot and the jokes play out predictably; it’s better than a television movie only because of the well-measured work of Hawkes and Hunt, but not much better.

     But I can’t deny the heartfelt sincerity that shines through in the production; no doubt in large part because of writer-director Ben Lewin, also a victim of polio as a child. The story is based on the remembrances of journalist Mark O’Brien, whose life was the subject of the 1996 documentary “Breathing Lessons,” which won an Oscar for director Jessica Yu.   


No comments: