Saturday, March 26, 2011

Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch

Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch opens with a powerful music montage that depicts the sordid events that land Baby Doll (Emily Browning) in an institution for the mentally insane, a living hell she does not deserve. Victimized by her brutal stepfather, she is relinquished to the custody of abusive hospital orderlies. For Baby Doll and her friends, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, doing some heartfelt acting), Rocket (Jena Malone in constant bitter and rebellious mode), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, looking totally uncomfortable outside the Disney Channel), and Amber (Jamie Chung, merely modeling sexy outfits), freedom is only a dream, and perhaps the only freedom they can attain is inside their minds where they strut their stuff into four set-piece battles.

Clad in the thigh-highs, garters, and fetishistic dance-girl costumes that turn them into sex objects for the kind of abusive men that populate this film, Baby Doll and her wild bunch blaze away with automatic weapons at gigantic samurai; steam-powered clockwork World War I German soldiers (I liked the Germans spewing steam instead of blood; and they're not zombies); armored ogres; a dragon; and chrome robots, and all this is set in fantasy-scapes, rendered in steampunk greens and browns, the kind of CGI feast we expect form Zack Snyder, with gratuitous slow-mo close ups of ejecting cartridge casings.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

One pill makes you . . . Limitless

In Neil Burger’s fast-paced, entertaining film Limitless, Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a creatively paralyzed writer with a book deal for an inscrutable science fiction novel, who can’t manage to get one word down on his laptop screen until he’s slipped an experimental drug called NZT-48 that accesses 100% of his brain power, allowing him to charm his landlord’s daughter out of nagging him for the rent, help her write a law essay, seduce her, write a chunk of his novel, all in one day, and then – blastoff – the sky’s the limit.

Great name. Eddie Morra. Sounds like a bookie for the mob, or it made me think of a moray eel, perhaps suggesting Eddie’s slithery, aggressive side. Or perhaps it’s meant to suggest the moral dilemmas Eddie faces as he succumbs to the allure of the drug’s effects. Or perhaps it simply suggests that Eddie wants more out of life. Like Doctor Faustus or Dorian Gray, he dares to open a Pandora’s box in order to get a hell of a lot more out of life, even though this choice comes with a hell of a price.

I especially enjoyed the film’s science-fiction elements and the use of creative effects to depict Eddie’s transformation. When Eddie pops his first pill, he is aware of his brain connecting with everything he knows and has observed. He notices part of a book title in landlord’s daughter’s book back, and the complete title floats through the air to his brain. When he decides to get a handle on his wastrel existence and clean up his grungy apartment, multiple Eddie’s zoom around the place, doing dishes and putting things away. I wish I could do that! Then, in the film’s best image, when Eddie sits down at his laptop and pounds out his novel in fast motion, the letters rain down from the ceiling.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"My, what big eyes you have!" - Red Riding Hood

I’m not going to spend much time here on the overall silliness of this Twilight-like (girl desired by two handsome guys; girl’s father played by Billy Burke, who plays Bella’s father; werewolves) disappointment that retells the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale without any sort of engaging imagination. I’m not going to address the wooden acting, the very unscary CGI werewolf, how Virginia Madsen looks totally out of place, how most of the characters seem out of place, looking like characters in a Disney Channel teen drama done up in storybook costumes standing around looking shocked to find themselves in a werewolf movie. I’m not going to go on about how Julie Christie as Grandmother is wasted on making sudden appearances and odd exclamations that work, unintentionally or not, as a running joke throughout the movie. I’m only going to address two elements, one a significant plus, another a significant weakness: the eyes of Amanda Seyfried and the ineffective art direction.

The Eyes of Amanda Seyfried:

They are impossibly large. You could get lost in them forever and ever. With the frequency of the close shots on Seyfried’s eyes, deep and dusky gray-blue, juxtaposed with her luxuriant tresses of golden blonde hair, it’s almost as if director Catherine Hardwicke is trying to build the whole movie around her eyes, as Seyfried’s character Valerie, the girl in peril of the big bad wolf, uses those big beauties to express deep longing or intense fear. But as interesting as Seyfried’s eyes may be, and as stunning as the close shots are, they are not enough to carry this disappointing, poorly written, lamely imagined story.

The Fairytale Town:

Immediately, as the townspeople close their gate against the predations of the werewolf, offering up a little piggy in appeasement, talking about how the werewolf has not bothered them in years, some of the characters stumbling through sentences without contractions, village idiot babbling in the attic, you are immediately reminded of Shyamalan’s The Village. But even though Red Riding Hood matches elements from M. Night Shyamalan’s film, it does not come anywhere near succeeding in establishing the rich reality of Shyamalan’s village nor the very convincing dread of the townspeople cowering in that very convincing little world.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Standard Operating Procedure - Battle Los Angeles

Well, hell, I was looking forward to a gripping alien-invasion thrill ride, but what you get in Battle Los Angeles is nothing more than standard operating procedure for an action movie that spends more time glorifying the U.S. military in combat than it does establishing any sort of substantial fear or establishing the aliens as a fearsome, formidable foe. In fact, I frequently felt I was watching an extended version of that Citizen Soldiers propaganda music video we were forced to watch countless times before the previews played. Although I kind of dig a good old John Wayne guts and glory shoot-em-up, I had expected this one to serve up a little more science fiction with its battle action. Instead, this is the same old thing, with all the elements you’d expect from a standard war movie.

Aaron Eckhart as Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz:

He’s John Wayne, 2011. He has devoted twenty years to the Marines, and he wants out, but when aliens land off Santa Monica, he kicks in and does his duty and more, risking his life in daring maneuvers, planning to go back alone to destroy an alien command ship. Eckhart has presence, and he often carries the movie as it subsides into ordinary combat action, but we don’t get much more from Eckhart than tough-as-nails bravado. A little bit of the shakes, sure, but when he and his men have gone miles and miles beyond the call of duty, he’s ready to eschew R&R and go back for more: “I’ve already had my breakfast.”

Action Without Suspense:

The action starts so immediately it’s jarring and disorienting. As the platoon led by Second Lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and Sergeant Nantaz gear up and fly out to Lincoln Avenue in Santa Monica to extract civilians before a massive air strike, the place is already a hellish war zone. Seen from the air, the image is impressive, but I felt disappointed that we never get to see how it got that way. The aliens have already landed but without any sort of build up or suspense. From fuzzy televised newscasts we learn that approaching meteors harbor some sort of alien craft. Again, in fuzzy images on TV screens, the meteors splash down, one hits a ship, alien cyborgs or whatever emerge from the water, and ranks of aliens march out of the ocean onto Santa Monica Beach, an image that could have been impressively done as a gripping set-piece. But, hell, we’re past that. We’re already following our platoon into Santa Monica, where the streets have been reduced to the mean streets of Baghdad, with insurgents shooting down from rooftops. And that’s all it is, any old insurgent threat, a lot of shooting, a lot of running down alleys and into apartments and laundry rooms, but no sort of gripping dread of what’s out there.

U.S. Military Advertising:

This movie is certainly endorsed by the U.S. Marines. It does the same thing that Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) did, which is why the Marines showed it to new recruits training for the Vietnam War. All the essential Marine virtues are extolled – unit pride, sacrifice, duty. Never leave a man behind! “Retreat? Hell!” The swelling musical score plays obtrusive accompaniment for all the heroism and glory.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hang on to your hats! The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau was originally slated to be released in September of last year, but many viewers were still on an Inception high, and even though the two films are entirely different, the other-worldly sci-fi nature of the former might have drawn viewers expecting more of the latter, only to discover that The Adjustment Bureau is not an action movie with a lot of shooting about different realms of non-reality. The Adjustment Bureau is a quiet little sci-fi film about true love and free will, and there’s absolutely no shooting in it.

The story is simple. Matt Damon is David Norris, a young congressman from the mean streets of Brooklyn successfully running for a senate seat on his charm and bad-boy attitude, and Emily Blunt plays Elise Sellas, a rather flip, free-spirited dancer, also with a promising future. When David loses his campaign due to a scandalous photograph from his past, he meets Elise, they look at each, they fall in love. But being together is apparently not the fate intended for them by the Chairman, whose Adjustment Bureau of nerdy goons in suits and outdated trilbies keeps people on the right course in life so that we imperfect humans don't entirely destroy the planet. Who the hell are the Chairman and the Adjustment Bureau? God and his angels? An alien lord and his minions? We never do find out.

Indeed, intentionally or not, the hat dudes are hilarious at times, bungling their straight-backed pursuit of the errant David even though their little hats allow them to use doors that allow them to jump to another location in the city. But the fun is following Damon’s endearing perseverance in choosing to be with Elise and marry her, even though the hat guys keep warning ominously that this choice will damage their futures. And when things get a little too nonsensical, Terence Stamp steps in as Thompson the "Hammer," whose talent is smashing even the most passionate relationship. Just Stamp's ominous presence and voice, as mesmerizing here as way back when in Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), are enough to nudge you back onto the edge of your seat.

What would you choose? A bright future that might benefit the world, or the love of your life? Well, we’re kind of romantic at heart, so we are behind Damon all the way. Besides, Damon has a talent for investing himself in his characters in such a warm, charismatic way, that as a candidate for whatever office, we would definitely vote for him, and as a staunch Everyman bravely defying the Fates in order to pursue his free will, we are behind him throughout all his clever evasions of those nagging nerds with the trilbies.

Meanwhile, Emily Blunt, though not a raving beauty (her face is kind of flat; her eyes kind of wan), has a talent for convincingly portraying the woman of David’s dreams. It’s not just the Brit accent; there’s a style about her delivery, there’s a twinkle in her eye, and she makes us want David to want her.

The chief strength of The Adjustment Bureau is the chemistry between Damon and Emily Blunt, their touching portrayal of love-at-first-sight, and the film’s simplistic but poignant commentary about free will. This is not an earth-shattering film. It is a very satisfying one.

And if the dynamic performances of Damon and Blunt are not enough for you, or if the story’s ruminations about free will are not deep enough for you, then relax, sit back, and feast your eyes on the stunning cinematography of John Toll, who has loads of fun moving David and Elise through a rabbit’s-hole wonderland of regimented buildings and lines and angles (allusions to North by Northwest, a classic of love and pursuit by mysterious agents?), as the trilby guys use multiple doorways to try to outfox David and Elise. Watch out! Door #3 might take you to Yankee Stadium or the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Toll creates a whimsical wonderland of angular geometry that suggests, of course, the lines of Fate in the hat guys’ Notebooks of Destiny, or whatever those flat, leather-bound notebooks are - and I want one more than an iPad!

This maze of hallways, stairways, and alleys might also suggest the rat’s maze in which David is caught, and it’s invigorating to watch as shots of streets and hallways and skyscrapers create tension in this simple tale in which David and Elise pursue the fate that they have chosen for themselves in their imperfect and reckless but loyal human hearts.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Life with John Wayne

After reading Jason Bellamy’s perceptive evaluations of Chisum and The Cowboys, I knew I had to write about John Wayne. As the screen capture for my blog profile might suggest, John Wayne is my favorite actor, and I have spent a lifetime watching and re-watching his movies. For me, the best antidote to low spirits is watching a favorite John Wayner, a sure way to make me smile, chuckle, or feel a tug at my emotions.

When I decided I had to write about John Wayne, I considered reviewing one of his best movies, but I wanted to talk about more than one film. I considered a video essay of his life’s work. What I have settled on here is an essay with video clips that covers my experiences with John Wayne movies and delineates aspects of his talent and persona that I admire.

I don’t recall my first experience with John Wayne. It was in the 1950s and it must have been a movie on TV, but I can’t remember whether it was one of his many forgettable 1930s Western actioners that included shootouts, chases on horseback, much leaping from horse to horse, and the inevitable fistfights, or whether it was watching a more significant John Wayne movie on TV with my family. I have a feeling it might have been The Searchers (1956) because I remember how the quotation “That’ll be the day” became a favorite household idiom.

Whatever the starting point, it set me on a quest to see all the John Wayne movies I could find by hunting through TV Guide and setting up a weekend viewing regimen that took me to many Westerns: Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Dark Command, Tall in the Saddle, Flame of the Barbary Coast, Angel and the Badman, Fort Apache, Red River, Three Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Fighting Kentuckian, Rio Grande, Hondo, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, the Civil War adventure The Horse Soldiers, as well as a number of 30s B-Westerns that blur together in memory; war films: Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima, Operation Pacific, Flying Leathernecks; sea stories: The Long Voyage Home, Reap the Wild Wind, Wake of the Red Witch, The Sea Chase; anti-Commie propaganda: Big Jim McClain (a truly boring movie; Wayne plays a special agent ferreting out Commies) and Blood Alley; a number of construction company/entrepreneurial dramas: The Spoilers, Pittsburgh, War of the Wildcats, Tycoon; the stand-alone classic The Quiet Man; a wide array of films from miscellaneous genres: Three Faces West, Lady for a Night, Without Reservations, Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty, Legend of the Lost, The Barbarian and the Geisha; as well as oddities such as The Conqueror.