Monday, May 27, 2013

Work in Progress: Frances Ha

In Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Frances (Greta Gerwig) certainly marches to the beat of a different drummer. She pees in the subway over the third rail, and she runs along the streets of New York City like a little girl. She goes off on odd tangents during a sophisticated dinner party, and she jumps up and makes omelets when someone says he doesn't want to eat out but he wants to be served. She likes to fake-fight in public with her best friend, and when she tries this with someone else, the result is hilarious.

Frances is aimless in New York. She aspires to be a dancer, but she’s too awkward and big-boned to be good at it. Still, she’s a good teacher and a good director. As a 27-year-old woman trying to find herself in the big city, she doesn’t have enough money for rent and has to go begging for a couch to sleep on. When she loses her position with a dance troupe, she works for her alma mater’s summer program, and in a number of sharply poignant scenes there, it is clear that she feels like she's losing ground instead of making progress in her life. Frances would like to appear mature and sophisticated, but after visiting her parents in their simple home in Sacramento, the expression on her face when she parts from them at the airport reveals that she is not far from being a child.

Filmed in rich black-and-white, this series of naturalistic vignettes presents Frances as a likable lost soul. In certain respects, we might find ourselves identifying with her because we have known someone like her, or we share some of her characteristics and have been in similar situations: being the unsophisticated outsider at a dinner party; dropping the oddball comment that makes everybody’s head turn; feeling less talented than all the talented people around us. As I watched, I thought of my former students coming into their post-college years; I also found myself thinking about how ill-formed I was at twenty-seven.

That Frances jacks up her credit card bill for a weekend in Paris, just because everyone at the dinner party brags about Paris, stretches the film’s everyday realism, but the fact that she forges ahead on her own like this, even though she sleeps through her first day there and spends the rest of her time walking aimlessly, is an indication of Frances’s courage to strike out on her own – as she does when she directs a group of young people in a successful performance of an experimental dance.

Some of the episodes are off key or fall flat. Sometimes, such as when Frances discards a chair from storage and posts a sign on it asking someone to adopt it, the vignettes have no more point than to be cute. For the most part, however, the film’s realism is memorably sharp, and the film’s title character is well worth spending time with. We might find ourselves cheering Frances on, and smiling warmly in sympathy when the film’s title works its way Rosebud-fashion into the final image, suggesting that Frances, like most young people her age, is a work in progress.

Fast 6

At the beginning of this year, I made a pledge to write at least something about every movie I see in 2013, which makes me kind of reluctant to see mindless action movies like Fast & Furious 6 since I know I’m not going to come out of the noise and mayhem wanting to write an extensive review, but having a hankering for mindless action and Michelle Rodriquez last night, I have to admit I saw Fast 6, and so to avoid breaking my record, I dutifully post a few comments here.

- I saw the first installment of the franchise, The Fast and the Furious, way back when, but I missed the sequels between that one and this one. Still, I saw all the previews multiple times, so I feel like I’ve seen them all, and I had no trouble joining the saga at this point.

- I’ve always enjoyed Michelle Rodriguez as the tough, kickass Hispanic chick, starting with Resident Evil, in which she is one tough lady and nothing short of awesome. Since then, I have enjoyed her in Machete and Avatar. In Fast 6 I noticed some lines around her mouth. Michelle is getting old. Time’s winged chariot affects us all. Paul Walker was looking thin and a little gray. Vin Diesel can hide the gray because he’s bald, but Vin’s getting old in the face as well.

- I enjoyed the camaraderie here. The characters like each other, the performers seem to like each other, and there are some nice chuckly moments of interaction between them.

- As an action sequence, I preferred the tank sequence to the climactic airplane sequence that goes on and on and on. Shot in broad daylight, the tank action is easier to follow than the action in the nighttime sequence. Sometimes, in the latter, I had no idea whose vehicle was smashing into whose. I guess the tank sequence goes on and on and on as well, and Toretto’s valiant leap to save Letty is beyond belief and the laws of gravity, but I enjoyed the tank smashing cars.

- I enjoyed the audience that politely enjoyed the action, cheered at the right moments, and clearly loved these guys and babes and their fast and furious cars.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Epic is a colorful, fanciful animated adventure about a world of miniscule Leafmen, bugs, dandelions, pinecones, and such, whose job it is to safeguard a mystical pod that will stop the encroaching blight spread by the evil demon of decay, Mandrake (the magical voice of Christoph Waltz), who leads an army of noisome creatures that look like gray tubers.

Epic evokes Photographing Fairies and the Cottingley fairy hoax of 1917 as a mad scientist, called Bomba, (Jason Sudeikis) obsessively employs all sorts of contraptions to prove the existence of this Lilliputian world. It calls Avatar to mind when the armor-clad Leafmen of the forest, flying astride hummingbirds, do aerial battle with the crud creatures mounted on crows. I also thought of Tarzan and the Ant Men when Bomba’s neglected, motherless daughter, Mary Katherine or M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), gets shrunk to Leafman size to take her destined part in helping the good guys carry the pod to where it is supposed to bloom, christen a new queen, and bring rebirth to the forest. You might also find yourself thinking of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as M.K., Nod (Josh Hutcherson), and Ronin (Colin Farrell) evade gigantic hazards in M.K.’s house.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories set in little worlds dwarfed by a gigantic human-sized setting – when I was little, I spent days and days setting up epic battles with hundreds of plastic soldiers, cowboys, and Indians – so the concept and the look of this film had my attention from the beginning.

But after an exhilarating opening sequence in which we first see the tiny Leafmen flying hummingbirds, follow them into an aerial dogfight through a treetop jungle, and then are taken out of that world when one of the crud creatures splats onto the windshield of the taxi bringing Mary Katherine to live with her wacky dad, the pace slows down and only dazzles intermittently. The film is especially slowed down by too much comic relief provided by a snail (Aziz Ansari) and a slug (Chris O’Dowd), but the film delivers its victorious climax that will elicit a "Yes!" from the kids, and it provides enough visual thrills to make it worthwhile.

Still, when it comes to the climactic aerial battle between the last regiment of Leafmen and a swarm of bats, the encounter is not as epic as it could have been. With the state of CGI art these days, why constrict your epic film with time spent on dialogue or the antics of slimy grubs? Why not open it up into the expansive possibilities of its setting and conflict? How to Train Your Dragon, for example, takes the visuals of its epic world and battles to the very limit. Epic is quite imaginative, but with a little more imagination, it could have been truly epic.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

These Are the Voyages of the J.J. Abrams Enterprise: Star Trek Into Darkness

The first J.J. Abrams “reimagining” of the Star Trek (2009) world involves time travel that changes history so that means his Star Trek takes place in an alternate universe and Abrams can mess around with sacrosanct Trek tropes a little – or a lot. That makes many Original Series veteran Trekkers (don’t call ‘em Trekkies), like my wife and her brother, very angry, but even though I watched the Original episodes when they first came out on TV when I was in high school – geez, that’s old! – I’m not a Trekker. So I didn’t mind this “reimagining” that makes free with an Original episode. We get a flip-flopped ending; a familiar villain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, makes his appearance; and Spock sheds a tear! Well, he is half human!

Admittedly, Star Trek Into Darkness plays freely with the canon, but there’s no denying that there’s never a dull moment in this new movie. A volcano erupts. Galactic terrorism strikes San Francisco in the beginning, and a massive starship smashes into the city at the end. We get photon torpedoes, phasers on stun, lots of beaming hither and yon, and even aggressive Klingons.

Abrams also plays freely with the science side of the genre. McCoy (Karl Urban) and Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) land on a barren planetoid, but they don’t need oxygen tanks? The water just off an island is deep enough to conceal the Enterprise? As for the fictional science of the Star Trek world, Abrams makes it up as he goes along. Can’t beam him up because he’s too close to something here – yeah, now we can beam her up even though she’s on the crowded bridge of the Enterprise. The science of beaming has never been an exact science.

But if you like Abrams’s characterization of James T. Kirk, or if you have a thing for Chris Pine, you’ll love this movie because it’s all about Jim Kirk, shooting, punching, jumping, flying. No kissing!? Well, he wakes up in bed with a couple of cute cat-tailed Na’vi. Yep, Jim’s a real hot dog. Love how he ogles the co-ed honeys at Starfleet Academy.

Yes, there’s never a dull moment, but perhaps that’s one of the film’s problems. Trekkers love character development, but even I could have used some quiet moments for the Holy Trinity of the 23rd century to sit down and schmooze. Nevertheless, the film moves along expeditiously, I enjoy Zachary Quinto as Spock, Simon Pegg as Scotty is wonderful, and there’s an intense airlock-to-airlock mid-space transfer. Starships didn’t have airlocks until this movie, but what the hell!

Although Star Trek Into Darkness is not everything one could wish for in a summer movie, along with Iron Man 3, it delivers the noise and action Hollywood thinks viewers expect from a summer movie. I guess that’s what many viewers DO expect from a summer movie, and they’re satisfied, but remembering summers that offered films like Minority Report and The Village, here’s one viewer who always wishes for just a little bit more.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Classic Comic: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

Watching Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is like watching a movie when you have a fever. Ever watch a movie when you’re home sick, really sick, and whatever movie it is, you see it as an absurd, surrealistic fantasy? That’s how Luhrmann’s Gatsby plays, and that’s how it looks.

With its reliance on CGI vistas rendered in blunt color no more impressive than the comic book special effect on iMovie, along with its gratuitous shots of snowflakes or confetti flying out for 3D effect, the movie is more comic book than film. As I watched, I found myself remembering the Classics Illustrated comics I used to collect and read when I was a boy.

Classics Illustrated (originally Classic Comics) were comic book versions of works of classic literature. My favorite issues were The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Toilers of the Sea, The Octopus, and Lord Jim. Their colorful, realistic line drawings never detracted from the drama of the story or the words of the original. Artwork varied throughout the issues. Some of the more distorted, surrealistic artwork competed with the story. Nevertheless, each comic book carried a postscript that, to this day, is responsible for my being a voracious reader: NOW THAT YOU HAVE READ THE CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED EDITION, DON’T MISS THE ADDED ENJOYMENT OF READING THE ORIGINAL, OBTAINABLE AT YOUR SCHOOL OR PUBLIC LIBRARY. I did exactly what the postscript suggested.

As a Classics Illustrated, Luhrmann’s Gatsby would have been one of the more oddball editions. Its flamboyant visuals smother the drama and emotion. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking as an outraged fan of the novel. In fact, The Great Gatsby, a watered-down, Americanized take on Heart of Darkness, is not one of my favorite works of American literature.

As a film, however, The Great Gatsby is choked to the point of emotional inertia by smothering CGI, harsh noise, and frenetic motion. Gatsby drives fast, likes to throw big parties, his guests drink a lot. We get the point!

As for the performers, Carey Mulligan plays Daisy like she’s drugged by all the flowers that surround her in a number of scenes and Joel Edgerton renders Tom Buchanan as scary caricature. Tobey Maguire has trouble keeping his eyeballs from popping out of his head, but his languorous voice-over narrative captures some of the spirit of the story. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio makes you see and feel the character of Gatsby, a golden hero with an enigmatic past. As the film sags under the bloat, DiCaprio gives us a Gatsby to care about. In his winning but tortured good looks you can see the passion that drives him and the innocent vulnerability that is his undoing.

But DiCaprio’s performance is not enough, and even during the film’s final recital of the novel’s famous last lines, you wonder where The Great Gatsby was in all the shallow glitz. Well, I guess, NOW THAT YOU HAVE SEEN THE LUHRMANN COMIC VERSION, DON’T MISS THE ADDED ENJOYMENT OF READING THE ORIGINAL, OBTAINABLE AT YOUR SCHOOL OR PUBLIC LIBRARY.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"It's a hard-knock life": Iron Man 3

Tony Stark is back in action in Iron Man 3. This time around the villain is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a bitter inventor who has appropriated the “Extremis” regenerative virus developed by Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) to repair his crippled legs and create a race of super beings with fiery regenerative limbs. I’m not clear what Killian intends to do with his super beings, who have a tendency to overheat and blow up. This leads Killian to employ a terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who claims responsibility for the “bombings.”

I guess Killian wants to take over the world, or something. Superhero villains always want to take over the world. It’s not clear what he wants to do, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Downey, Jr. carries the story with his humor and glib delivery. Seems that Tony is suffering from anxiety attacks and is weary with his lot in life. His one-liners elicited laughs from me, and some of the best moments in the film are his reactions to a number of setbacks that provide nice surprises. As often as Tony's Iron Man pieces fly to him on command and click into place in that oh-so-cool way, his clinking, clattering parts fall to the ground. Technology doesn’t always work for Tony Stark, and at one point he has to rely on the help of a fatherless boy (Ty Simpkins) with whom he develops a touching father-son relationship, a thoughtful interlude that provides a nice change of pace.

As always, Gwyneth Paltrow is radiant, and she gets to wear an Iron Man suit and kick butt. As always, too, there’s lots of action: some satisfying destruction as Stark’s Malibu crib crumbles into the Pacific; tense moments when Tony attempts to rescue free-falling passengers sucked out of Air Force One; and epic combat amidst all sorts of collapsing cranes and derricks involving multiple remote-controlled Iron Man suits.

By the end of the story, Tony Stark has been bashed and wounded and presumed dead. He nearly loses Pepper, he acknowledges past mistakes, and he resolves to turn over a new leaf. He has journeyed into his heart of darkness and, like Marlow, he has narrated his confessional tale, as the opening voice-over suggests. SPOILER - IF YOU WAIT TILL THE END OF THE LENGTHY CREDITS: But as the whimsical post-credits epilogue reveals, “Marlow” has been telling his story to Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), but the Hulk has fallen asleep at the beginning and hasn’t heard a word of it.