Archive for September, 2011
YATES: Movie entertaining despite ping-pong plot lines
Marvel Studio’s “Thor” is both a standalone superhero film and an integral part of the upcoming film “The Avengers,” which will also feature Marvel characters Iron Man, Incredible Hulk and Captain America.
I smell a little friendly film rivalry here as each Marvel film gets us closer to the much anticipated crossover film event in “The Avengers.” How would “Thor” stack up against its current box office rivals-yet-soon-to-be-allies?
Thankfully it is now out on DVD, so I laid the hammer of Thor down (actually just $3.50) to check out the new release and find out for myself.
As the plans to crown him king crumble, the God of Thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is exiled from his home planet of Asgard to Earth for his extreme and costly arrogance. While on Earth, Thor — now a mere mortal — learns the meaning of humility thanks to the help of scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). While exiled, Thor’s devious brother Loki puts into action a plan to take over as King of Asgard. Thor must atone for his past mistakes in order to stop his brother’s plan and save both Arsgard and his family and friends.
As with most recent superhero films, the mis-en-scene is impressive. Director Kenneth Branagh (“Sleuth”) does a fantastic job in creating three contrasting limbs of the “tree of nine realms” in “Thor” in Earth, Asgard and Jotunheim. Asgard is the vibrant center of the realms, while Jotunheim is a dying, frozen rock. Different parts of Earth could qualify as either previous description, but flat, dusty, desolate New Mexico is the eventual locale that Thor lands at. Not quite dead, but close.
The film is credited with three screenwriters and two more “story” writers, and it shows with somewhat of a hyperactive plot. Sometimes simplicity is better, and although the name of the film is “Thor” it focus a bit too much on the battle between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. Thor, his childhood friend Sif, and fellow gods The Warriors Three are almost a side story that we bounce back to now and again.
While both stories are important to the integrity of the comic, it would have been nice to see a bit more of a focus on the character Thor. The exposition is a clever loop that begins and ends with Foster hitting Thor with her vehicle while chasing a weather phenomenon, with the Asgard-Jotunheim backstory sandwiched in the middle. Unfortunately the somewhat chaotic back and forth frenzy continues for the remainder of the film.
I admittedly have a bit of trouble critiquing superhero films. They combine many genres — comedy, drama, action — by including cheesy one-liners, cliché moments, and common protagonist character arcs inner-struggles. Verisimilitude is thrown out the window, plots are usually predictable and most characters outside of the superhero are flat with little depth. Despite all this, the superhero genre film is usually a very fun 120 minutes of cinema — especially on the big screen (or in this case, large LCD screen).
“Thor” was no different. Despite the ping-pong plot lines on Earth and Asgard and ascertainable story, it still manages to be entertaining. I would even argue that today’s superhero films share a heart beat with 80s cinema — campy dramas that win you over in the end despite whatever character or plot flaws exist. It worked for a decade in the 80s, so we might as well enjoy the ride — especially with “The Avengers” right around the corner!
WIEGENSTEIN: Results vary in first of ‘Avenger’ films, but earnestness reigns
In a summer piled high with superhero movies, there had to be one that embraced its overwrought silliness wholeheartedly, and “Thor,” newly released on DVD, serves that role dutifully for 2011. While it lacks both the smarts and style of “X-Men: First Class” and the period-piece verve of “Captain America,” the film makes the wise decision of delivering a relatively ridiculous plot (even in the realm of the comic world) in an enthusiastic and straightforward manner.
“Thor” begins in the otherworldly realm of Asgard, where the cities resemble pipe organs and the landscape is just this side of a three-wolf-moon T-shirt. Oddly enough (and this may be a leftover effect from the 3D theatrical print), these scenes are drab and dark enough that much of the early action in the film is difficult to discern. What is clear is that Thor, son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins in rare scenery-crewing form), is enthused about becoming king without giving any thought to the diplomacy required for the role. By the 30-minute mark, he’s thrown his kingdom into war and enrages his father so much that he’s stripped of his power and cast into the hellish realm of Earth.
The real triumph of “Thor” is in its casting of the central role — Chris Hemsworth was previously known to me only as the actor able to make about two minutes of screen time in the latest “Star Trek” installment affecting and memorable as James T. Kirk’s late father. Now about three times his original size, Hemsworth delivers his purposefully florid dialogue without a hint of smirking. The earnestness brought by both Thor and Captain America this summer will be something to see once the two rub against the sarcasm of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark in the eventual “Avengers” ensemble piece.
Meanwhile, Hemsworth’s costars are varying degrees of just-okay, with villain Tom Hiddleston’s confused rage and jealousy topping the scale. Director Kenneth Branagh (!) makes his touch felt in the actors’ tendency to bellow their lines — of course, if mythical gods aren’t allowed a touch of hamminess, who is? Clark Gregg shows up once more as the snarky connecting thread between all the “Avengers” films, a SHIELD agent able to survive explosions galore.
“Thor” was one of a rather-puzzling series of films starring Natalie Portman released after her Academy Award win for “Black Swan.” (The others included the formulaic romcom “No Strings Attached” and the meh-level stoner comedy “Your Highness.”) Oscar cred or no, she’s a ho-hum drag on the movie who could use more of the tartness provided by Kat Dennings, who has the thankless role of third-wheel science intern. While suspension of disbelief is a constant in the realm of cinematic romance, it seems entirely unlikely that after four days (by my count) in her company, Thor would be wooed enough to cross a Lisa Frank-style rainbow bridge to get to her.
The first in a comic film series is almost always an origin story of the gaining of power, which the hero must master in the course of 90-some minutes. The backwards nature of “Thor’s” plot — a powerful man stripped of his awesomeness at the start — is an intriguing one. And while it’s clear that everyone from Branagh on down is trying their hardest to sell material that could easily edge into camp, the results vary.
YATES: Film strays too far from proven storytelling formula
“Drive” offers up what looks like an action-packed indie thrill ride that pays homage to some classic crime films of the past. Made for a paltry $13 million, the film is forced to rely on substance rather than style, as Hollywood blockbusters typically spend more than that on advertising alone. Early reviews have been largely positive, so I loaded up the family truckster and headed to Showplace 6 over the weekend to see what all the excitement was about.
Adapted from the 2005 crime novel of the same name, “Drive” is the story of a talented Hollywood stunt man (Ryan Gosling) — known simply as Driver — who freelances as a getaway driver for L.A. criminals. When the reclusive Driver falls for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”), his simple life becomes very complicated. Irene’s estranged husband returns and puts his family in danger — forcing Driver to take on a dangerous job. When the heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself a wanted man fighting to save himself and the woman he loves.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Valhalla Rising”) is said to have been more intrigued by Driver’s dual personality than the story itself. It definitely shows, as the film comes off as two very different personas — the first half a slow developing love story, the second more of a film noir crime story. The fractured plot identity leaves the film in neutral for the majority of the first two acts. A botched robbery and a Tarantino-like plot twist eventually puts the film in gear, already in the midst of the second act. A good film should have an early inciting incident that sets the protagonist on his or her journey — it drives (pun intended) the entire second act. In “Drive” this happens about an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie. Everything up to that point was Driver brooding at home, at work, and behind the wheel.
Now and again a mysterious character that the audience knows nothing about works in a film. It adds an element of intrigue and suspense and is very fitting for a crime drama such as “Drive.” However, when nearly all of your characters have no backstory, you end up with flat characters that are hard to invest in. The one character I feel any type of emotion for is Driver’s boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston, AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) — because we learn about his hard luck backstory. The supporting cast is almost talented enough to make up for what the script lacks. Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman create a formidable antagonist duo, and Oscar Isaac (“Sucker Punch”) attempts to give Irene’s estranged and imprisoned husband Standard some depth.
“Drive” does a nice job paying homage to cinema ancestors such as “Taxi Driver” and “Pulp Fiction” — along with Refn’s self-professed homage to avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. With gritty images of Los Angeles and unnecessary gore, the film is a perfect archetype of cinema existing as an artistic canvas. What it lacks is a forward-moving plot, round characters and strong three-act narrative structure. It offers a refreshing change from standard Hollywood cinema, but for the most part it just spins its wheels — straying a bit too far from the proven storytelling formula that has worked in Hollywood for decades.
WIEGENSTEIN: Movie far exceeds typical tropes of its genre
My television was completely unhelpful in the days leading up to my showing of “Drive.” From a schizophrenic slew of 15-second promos, it was left completely unclear whether I was headed for a “Bullitt”-style worshiping of automobiles, an unhappy romance between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, or maybe one of those action movies where everyone constantly speaks in a shout. “Drive” is none of these things. “Drive” is better than I could have ever guessed from the paltry advertisements, and it’s certainly better than anything else in theaters right now. More than that: it’s my favorite of the year as of now.
I always feel a little uncomfortable writing rave reviews — I second-guess my admiration, I wonder if I’ve been a little warped by the almost-universal praise already heaped on this new spin on the noir genre. “Drive” left me with no niggling doubts. Director Nicholas Winding Refn was able to pull off a truly smart thriller — a group of films that still remains depressingly small.
Our protagonist has no name, though it’s entirely possible that his character, credited as “Driver,” may have just gone ahead and adopted his professional role as an official moniker. His facial expressions are minimal, and he lacks the inner monologue often given to strong-but-silent types. He seems unsure as to whether he’s a hero or an antihero, as is the audience. Ryan Gosling excels, playing Driver as not simply a blank slate, but a puzzle that remains unsolved even after the 100 minute running time. He cares about Irene, the sweetly sad married woman down the hall (Carey Mulligan, who could have done with a few more scenes) and her young son, or at least as much as he seems able to.
It’s through this one miniscule chink in Driver’s exterior that a classic MacGuffin plot unfolds itself — a large sack of money appears via Irene’s questionable husband, and with it an increasingly violent number of encounters with the local crime bosses (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, unhinged and ice-cold, respectively). No points for guessing that lengthy escape sequences via car happen, though it is refreshing to see that chase scenes can be much more than yet another “The Fast And The Furious” flick.
Gosling said in a recent interview that he sees “Drive” as a kind of warped fairy tale — “a violent John Hughes movie” — and that hyper-stylized ’80s form is in full effect here, from the neon pink font of the title to the throbbing synth soundtrack. Like any neo-noir worth its salt, the play of light and shadow is put at the forefront by Refn, with Driver constantly bathed in yellow and red. It’s a movie about going fast, lit entirely by the colors of caution.
“Drive” feels much like the slow revving of a powerful engine (come on, I’m required to put in at least one car metaphor) — its intensity is reserved for the climatic moments in the film’s latter half, but the measured pacing is half the enjoyment. It’s a movie that far exceeds the typical tropes of its genre, all the ridiculous advertising trappings accompanying it, not to mention exceeding nearly every 2011 release thus far.
YATES: Despite flaws, ‘Contagion’ entertains
It’s the end of the world as we know it … at least that’s what the filmmakers of “Contagion” would like you to believe. Actually, the tagline of the film is “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.” That does paint a pretty grim picture, does it not? Like a moth to a flame, I cannot stay away from disaster flicks, so I was eager to check out Hollywood’s latest contribution to the genre. Unfortunately, I soon found myself questioning the decision to spend two hours in dark, cramped quarters surrounded by sniffling, coughing strangers. I suppose that’s part of the hook with the other tagline of the film — “Nothing spreads like fear.” In looking at the Hollywood box office numbers, nothing sells like fear either.
A U.S. corporate executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) travels to Hong Kong on business and contracts an unknown disease that quickly kills her and her son. The highly contagious disease, known as MEV-1, begins to spread rapidly — first throughout the U.S. and soon thereafter the entire world population. As the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention spearheads an investigation to find the cause for the disease and a cure, social journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) claims that the government is ignoring a holistic cure, which fuels public panic and fervor over the disease. It becomes a race against time to find a cure while basic services shut down, rioting and looting become the norm, and the U.S. death rate climbs into the millions.
This type of disaster film based around a virus is nothing new (“Outbreak” and the more independent “The Signal” are two of my favorites). I assumed that “Contagion” would bring something new to the genre, and I was disappointed to discover that wasn’t the case. The film plays out more like a paint-by-numbers account of how a virus could evolve from a single patient to a planet-wide death knell. In fact, director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven” series) gives us a visual roadmap via “Day X” titles throughout the film. The storylines are extremely fractured — you’re not sure if the film is about Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his family or the CDC and their race for a cure. At one point a World Health Organization scientist — who up until this point is a major character in the film — is kidnapped in a pivotal scene, and then seen only one more time in the film. Like many films before it, “Contagion” simply tries to fit too many storylines into a two hour narrative.
The film makes a strong social commentary while staying surprisingly neutral. Government red tape, Wall Street and pharmaceutical corruption and holistic vs. chemical cures are all touched upon but never deeply explored. We’re left wondering if there was, in fact, a holistic cure out there, but the film never answers the question. The government drags their feet once a cure is discovered, but they do in fact come up with a cure. Perhaps I’m asking too much from today’s filmmakers, but I believe that if you introduce such controversial subject matter, you should take a side. We don’t need the politically correct response — that’s what congressmen are for.
We inevitably end up back at “Day 1” where we find out just how the disease came to fruition. It all seems rather anti-climactic at this point, as the scientists searching for the cause basically tell us in act two. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a shocking ending or just a matter of fact scene — perhaps thrown in because test audiences didn’t like the fact that they never found out where the disease began. Such ambivalence from the final scene of a film is never a good thing. I kept waiting for some sort of twist to happen, but instead we get a visual representation of information revealed midway through the film.
For all its flaws, “Contagion” is an entertaining film, especially if you see it in a theater. About a half hour into the film my wife whispered to me, “I’m nervous now anytime somebody in the theater coughs.” I had to agree with her. That’s what you’re looking for in a film — some sort of strong emotional response from the audience. “Contagion” certainly plays on our fears — fear of an unknown virus (the bird flu and SARS played a role in the film), fear of how our governments will respond, and fear if how mankind will react in the face of adversity. It offers a predictably bleak outlook, but if you enjoy a good disaster film, you’ll get a (temperature?) rise out of “Contagion.”
WIEGENSTEIN: ‘Contagion’ plot expands too far
Even without the title, it’s easy to tell that the world of “Contagion” is indeed very ill. Scenes are lit with harsh jaundice-tinted light. Hands seem to linger as long as possible over whatever they touch, giving off a horrible, sticky feeling. Humans are gross, and there are a lot of us. This claustrophobic feeling is created within moments of entering Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, and if it makes you want to reach for the hand sanitizer — well, that’s the point.
“Contagion” is an action film in micro. Though it takes a large chunk of the movie to confirm, Ground Zero for the disease seems to have been one person (Gwyneth Paltrow) making a trip to Hong Kong, coming home and dying within hours of hitting U.S. soil. Her husband (Matt Damon) is floored, and immediately has to deal with his stepson falling sick as well. From there, the number of people involved in the story multiplies as quickly as the disease itself, until it ultimately extends to everyone from Demetri Martin to Dr. Sanjay Gupta. (I was more surprised to see the first.)
As “Contagion” is about a worldwide epidemic, the plot attempts to expand itself as widely as possible — too far than it should, ultimately. There are a few solid threads touched on throughout: Damon rejoining his teenage daughter and turning his house into a de facto bunker, a CDC exec (Lawrence Fishburne) attempting to liaise with Homeland Security officials, an prickly epidemiologist (Kate Winslet, with an awkward air that suits her character well) who’s given the horrible task of explaining everything to the city of Minneapolis.
There’s a whole lot of explaining throughout “Contagion,” which is, I suppose, understandable. I’m told that much of the medical-ese is accurate, giving a viewing bonus to those in the science-genius community. The biggest problem comes in the repetitive pattern of the dialogue — a giant chunk of jargon is spouted out, and a dumbed-down example immediately follows. The Spanish flu, polio, and smallpox are all namechecked in an ultimately meaningless way, as the whole point of the plot is that the new disease isn’t the same as any of them.
It’s a shame that this attentiveness to scientific accuracy wasn’t equally applied to the other members of the “Contagion” universe: Marion Cotilliard’s World Health Organization operative tale has a major twist halfway through, and then is completely forgotten about for 40 minutes. Jude Law plays a freelance journalist/conspiracy theorist who’s able to reach millions through his website, and ultimately … I don’t know … finagles his way through the film’s last third and impacts the story very little.
Director Steven Soderburgh is used to working with groups, be it the team of “Ocean’s 11/12/13” or the cast of “Traffic,” so it’s surprising to watch the storylines get away from him. In keeping with the theme, though, some of the film’s most striking shots are either overpopulated, or in complete isolation. It may be in his nature to work large-scale, but “Contagion” would be better served by remaining in the tightness of a single city. The man-on-the-street reactions of Matt Damon are far more interesting than the numerous CDC global press conferences we’re privy to.
In a movie-going populace that’s become immune to the body horror of the “Saw” series and its colleagues, medical terror is something that has remained unsettling for decades. The violence of a seizure can top a shoot-out any day, and the still, shocked faces of the dead here are far harder to shake than the chum often left behind after a monster attack. While we tend to head to the theater to experience bigger-and-better thrills, “Contagion” opens with a dark screen and a single cough, and is immediately scarier than any outside force could ever be.
YATES: ‘Back to School’
It is classics week, so with a nod to my writing partner as she begins graduate school, we’re going with a back to school theme. I initially planned on reviewing the little-known ’80s film “Happy Together,” starring Patrick Dempsey and Helen Slater, but unfortunately it is so little-known that I couldn’t get my hands on a copy this week. Plan B offers up another ’80s classic that represents this week’s theme within the title — 1986’s “Back to School.” Rodney Dangerfield on a college campus in the mid-80s… what could possibly go wrong?
In an effort to keep his fledgling son Jason (Keith Gordon) in college, wealthy clothing tycoon Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) decides to go back to school himself and enrolls at Jason’s college. Thornton quickly becomes the big man on campus by throwing big parties and living a lavish lifestyle, but his relationship with Jason begins to fall apart when he begins using his money to gain an unfair advantage in school. Only when faced with the threat of oral final exams does Thornton begin to figure out how to truly succeed — in college, and with his son.
“Back to School” may set the record for most appearances of cheesy 80’s film staples. Gregarious and quirky anti-hero protagonist — check (Dangerfield). Zany sidekick with wacky colored hair — check (Rober Downey Jr.). Handsome frat boy bully from an affluent family (awesome 80’s antagonist William Zabka a.k.a. Johnny from “Karate Kid”), fictional university athletic team (the Grand Lakes Hooters dive team), and classic studying montage — check, check and triple check. If you’re looking to write a thesis on 1980s cinematic comedy contrivances, look no further than this film.
“Back to School” features a host of talented actors playing minor or ancillary characters. The late Sam Kinison shines as an intense history professor, Ned Beatty nails the role of flaky college dean David Martin (get it, Dean Martin?), and Burt Young plays a familiar role as Thornton’s gruff caretaker. Sally Kellerman is perfectly cast as the sultry, mature literature professor, as is Paxton Whitehead as the stuffy business professor.
Unfortunately most of the film’s comedy comes from the same source in Dangerfield’s wacky antics. His one-liners quickly wear thin, and director Allen Metter doesn’t take advantage of the talent at his disposal. There are some heartfelt moments interspersed throughout the movie, and it would have been nice to see those moments as more of a focus in lieu of Thornton’s zany behavior. The film briefly hints at a back story involving the death of Thornton’s first wife as the catalyst for his eccentric behavior, but it is never revisited. Robert Downey Jr. shines as Jason’s anti-establishment sidekick, but much like Thornton, his character motivations are never revealed.
Perhaps the flat characters, bad one-liners and cheesy plots are just part of what helps make 80’s comedies so endearing. “Back to School” certainly doesn’t take itself seriously and is unflinching in its own absurdity. There is over the top, and then there is Dangerfield’s epic slow-motion triple lindy dive at the film’s climax that redefines the phrase over the top. The screenwriters had fun with the script (the Grand Lakes University Hooters is vintage ’80s), Metter makes the most of Dangerfield’s one-trick-pony comedic style, and veteran composer Danny Elfman delivers a campy 80’s musical score. It all comes together as a fun back to school trip that may not equal A+ cinema, but certainly embodies what we know and love about cheesy 80’s comedies.
WIEGENSTEIN: ‘The Graduate’
(First things first: many thanks to my esteemed co-writer for holding down the reviewing fort, while I made my three-state transition into graduate school, and to the folks at The Local Q for letting me stick around.)
In choosing a collegiate movie to talk about this week, many of my most notable options tended toward the comedic (“Animal House,” duh, but “Midnight Madness” and “Wonder Boys” were among my contenders). Unsurprising, given that there’s much comedy to be found in the idea of churning out well-rounded, brilliant citizens after a two-to-four-year melee of drinking and identity crises.
Given this competition, my ultimate choice of 1967’s “The Graduate” seems positively bleak in comparison. Though Netflix classifies the film as a “witty romantic comedy,” its humor is mined from the boredom and emotional numbness of its characters, and the romance is one that features a fair amount of tears. As if there were further question about its bittersweet status, the movie kicks off with the Simon & Garfunkel’s not-exactly-cheery “The Sounds Of Silence.”
With this musical cue, the film gets rolling almost instantly — we’re introduced to Ben (Dustin Hoffman) as he glides through the blank space of an airport via moving sidewalk, which transitions into his floating through a graduation party where the people are just as vacant. Within 15 minutes of the opening, “The Graduate” has already rolled out its two most famous lines: “Plastics,” obviously, and of course, “You’re trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson.”
What often gets forgotten is the latter quote’s closing bit, an awkward and unsure “…aren’t you?” stuck to the end of Ben’s assertion. Mrs. Robinson (who never gets a first name, and who refers to her paramour exclusively as “Benjamin”) navigates through the plot with confidence, even as her façade begins to crumble at the halfway point — Anne Bancroft is a mere six years older than Hoffman, yet she manages to imbue the role with the melancholy of the ages.
This is the film that made stars out of both Dustin Hoffman and director Mike Nichols (though he’d already made an impressive debut with “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” the year before), and it’s their work that’s truly able to stand the test of decades. Hoffman’s thousand-yard stare is able to come off as the frozen boredom within Ben’s character, rather than an actor merely sleepwalking through his performance. Nichols would go on to further dissect relationships in “Postcards From The Edge” and “Closer,” and shows a flair for memorable shot composition — “The Graduate” has the lighting and camera angles of a horror film at times, and I highly doubt that’s an accident.
However, for all the things that remain vibrant and interesting about “The Graduate,” there are elements that have either aged poorly (a heavy-handed underwater motif that Nichols fixates on for far too long), or misfire entirely (Hoffman’s stuttery delivery overstays its welcome by a good 30 minutes). There are interesting notes with Ben’s parental relationship that go unaddressed, and a dire need for Katharine Ross to take a few more acting lessons before assuming the mantle of love interest.
All this said, it must be noted that the movie closes with one of the greatest long takes in cinema. Attempting to describe the faces of Hoffman and Ross in the ultimate moments of “The Graduate” can never measure up to watching the play of emotions for oneself. Recent quarter-life crisis movies including “Garden State” and “(500) Days Of Summer” operate entirely within the shadow of Nichols’ work, and while the original falls short of flawlessness, its far-reaching influence and empathetic depiction of post-grad ennui render it well-worth watching.