Category Archives: movies

Three Things That Brought the Hammer Down Last Week

1. Thor smashed me pleasantly in the face with the mighty hammer of its polished superhero/mythological/space fantasy mashup. Thor has never been my favorite character, either in comics or in Norse mythology, but this movie was the real deal. My biggest concern going in was that the Asgardian fantasy trappings would look inherently goofy captured in the real world. Thor works pretty well for me when he’s running around punching frost giants and cracking trolls in the jaw with his hammer. Walking down the streets of NYC, the whole thing can fall on the wrong side of goofy. Kenneth Branagh largely avoids this problem by keeping the Godly sections of the movie distinct from the mortal, except for a few scenes where the Warriors Three strut down the street in full-on medieval garb, but that’s mostly played for laughs. I also loved how much of a Bro they made Thor as he learned his humility. The S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff took up a good chunk of time, but didn’t feel too shoe-horned in. I am salivating for Captain America and the Avengers will be awesome.

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2. The Hot Sauce Committee (Part Two) by the Beastie Boys has been at the top of my most anticipated albums list. It rocks. I had kind of forgotten how many sucka MCs are out there, so I’m glad the Firm of Horovitz, Yauch, and Diamond is back to school them all with their blistering similes.

3. Archer is the funniest show on television. I’ve been catching up with the last season on Hulu, and the show is really coming into it’s own. What started as a take on the more self-centered and misogynistic aspects of a James Bond-style superspy has developed into a workplace comedy with just a hint of surrealism. The episode “Placebo Effect” had the eponymous secret agent search out the criminal mastermind who had been selling counterfeit cancer medication (sugar pills and Zima). He insists on a “rampage” of revenge, and ends up interrogating the Irish mobsters behind the scheme while physically falling apart from the real meds he finds and engaging in an elaborate Family Feud homage. Hilarious.

Three Things That Rocked Me Like A Hurricane Last Week

Charming Young Billionaire

The Social Network. I am an unabashed fan of Aaron Sorkin, from the  heights rapid-fire walking and talking he reached with The West Wing to the swiftly forgotten self-aggrandizement of Studio 60 One the Sunset Strip, I have enjoyed them all. I’m also partial to David Fincher. Trent Reznor’s instrumental work basically got me through studying for law school finals with its dark ominous tones. So why did I avoid a movie that puts all three together while it was in theaters? I have no idea. Something about The Social Network failed to grab my interest. I thought it looked good and made vague plans to Netflix it eventually, but I never worked up the energy to see it during its theatrical run. Not even the Oscar buzz for the film could get my ass in the seat. Something about the subject matter just didn’t appeal to me. But having finally watched it, I have to ask myself: What took so long? This movie was awesome. Well written, directed, and acted. The most compelling part of Facebook’s  creation myth was the portrait it paints of Zuckerberg: ruthless genius and profoundly sad dude, a Charles Foster Kane for the Internet age. I especially loved the framing device of present-day depositions taking us back to the early Harvard days of the social networking behemoth.

A different sort of Office

Portal 2. This game makes my head hurt. In a good way. I’m still puzzling my way through the single player campaign, but I can already tell that Valve have hit this one out of the park. I’m almost completely desensitized to the simulated sensations of video games. Rarely do I get a visceral thrill. But the dizzying possibilities set up by the simple mechanic of creating a portal between two points in space often leaves me feeling slightly breathless. The voice acting is great as well. I could listen to Steven Merchant read the phone book, but the voice of the robot Wheatley is hilarious.

How's it hanging?

The Economist. I am a long time subscriber to the best weekly magazine in the history of the printed word, and their recent release of the iPad app has opened the magazine up for me in new and more convenient ways. My chief issue with the paper is the sheer deluge of information it rains down on my every week. Classically liberal, but intensely focused on taking the long view of the weeks news stories The Economist delves deeper and takes a wider scope than any other paper. This week’s edition goes deep into the dysfunctional workings of Californian politics with a special report on the failings of “extreme democracy”. It’s more riveting than it sounds. Plus, infographics!

Swords, Gravity, Bikers: Three Things That Pumped Me Up Last Week

1. Samurai Movies. Last Saturday was an active one for me. The day began with the traditional Samurai Saturday Kurosawa movie viewing. The Criterion Collection on Netflix Watch Instantly has proven a handy tool for filling out the gaps in my samurai movie knowledge, even while it gives me a chance to go back and watch some of my old favorites. Sanjuro was new to me, but I loved every minute of the film.Toshiro Mifune was at his gruffest, but still stole the show in this story of a group of inexperienced young Samurai dealing with a rebellion and taking advice from a grizzled old drunk. Mifune delivers the goods, as ever. I’m not sure why I get such a kick out of these old movies. Sure, part of it is the unquestionable bad-assery of dudes just straight up wailing on each other with swords. But the violence is surprisingly low key. (Until it isn’t). But there is a lyrical quality to films like Sanjuro and thematic depth to movies like Rashomon that I prefer.

2. Triple Rock Brewery Firkin Festival. After the film ended and the Beautiful Wife returned from her trip,we met up with some friends and made our way out to the East Bay for some delicious craft beers at the Triple Rock Brewery Firkin Gravity Beer Festival. Some of the finest small brewers in Nor Cal showed up with kegs of their most delicious brews. All of them served the old fashioned way, relying on an angled keg and Sir Isaac’s Newton’s specialty to make the suds flow. I tasted probably the finest Imperial Stout ever from Ballast Point.  It was called “Sea Monster” and it tasted so good that it made me want to float through the gulf stream and hassle 17th century sailors. My local brewery, The 21st Amendment brought their “Imperial Jack” ESB, which was brewed with Maker’sMark barrel oak chips and tasted like it’s ideal setting would be to drink it from a Mason jar on the front porch of a large Kentucky home.

3. Punks fighting hipsters with bikers watching. The East Bay Rats are a motorcycle club based in Oakland. After the beerfest, we moseyed along to their clubhouse for an irregular Fight Night. I do not ride a motorcycle and I have never attended a soirée at a clubhouse before, so I had nothing to calibrate my expectations aside from my fervent appreciation of Sons of Anarchy so I didn’t know what I was getting into. The night was billed as Punks Versus Hipsters, and they started out trying to match the mohawks to the moccasins, but over time the match ups moved away from that theme and anyone who wanted to enter the boxing ring took a turn. It was awesome. The bikers that I met were all nice guys.No one removed anyone else’s tattoo with a blowtorch, so Sons of Anarchy may have oversold the danger. The bouts were all overseen by a referee, the fighters wore gloves, and everybody hugged after the match. It was more like a Smoker at a local boxing gym than Thunderdome. The club house was super crowded though, and it seemed like a popular event.

When the Male Gaze Settles on Nazi Zombies: Sucker Punch

Hot Chicks in Fantasy Land

Zach Snyder has failed colossally with his latest film Sucker Punch. I don’t mean that the movie flopped or won’t make the studio money, even though it’s been beaten at the box office by the sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and a movie where Matthew McConaughey remains full shirted. I don’t even mean the film is a failure because Snyder didn’t do what he set out to do. Sucker Punch bears all the hallmarks the director’s style: gorgeously choreographed action scenes, slick music video production styles, and an almost Kubrickian chilliness. I have no doubt that the movie came out exactly as the writer/director intended. Unfortunately, the task he set for himself was impossible.

Sucker Punch fails because Zach Snyder set out to make an exploitative movie about the exploitation of women. Which sounds all meta and awesome in a postmodern way, but isn’t possible to render in the medium of film. As Truffaut observed it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because no matter how hard the director tries to convey the horrors of war, there’s a primal appeal in watching violence. A badass is a badass, and if you film him being a badass it’s going to look cool no matter how squeamish you might personally feel toward badassery. Sucker Punch is about the exploitation of women and the lengths that his characters will go to in order to escape their male oppressors. The movie has a slightly muddled metaphysics, but basically takes place in three separate (but interconnected) levels of reality in a way that call to mind the far superior Inception, but is still its own creature. Both films share a sense of complexity and find their strength in the labyrinthine constructs of the human mind, though Sucker Punch takes itself far less seriously.

At the start of the film, Snyder shows us a montage that establishes our protagonist Babydoll just after her mother dies. The time frame is indistinct, but Snyder seems to place the action in the 50s or 60s. Her stepfather, a leering brute who we see in a rage at being left out of the will. In the first minute, he shifts from economic exploitation of Babydoll and her sister to a clearly lascivious interest. While attempting to save her from the wicked stepfather’s advances, Babydoll accidentally shoots and kills her younger sister. In the aftermath, the Wicked Stepfather ships her off to a cinematically dingy insane asylum where a sleazy and corrupt (male) attendant agrees to an off-the-books lobotomy behind the back of the (female) head doctor, Carla Gugino. Snyder establishes this as the “Asylum Level”  as the film’s ground reality. Here, Babydoll has zero agency. She is literally confined by the males until such time as she can be negated with an icepick to the frontal lobe.

Before long, she starts imagining the asylum as a brothel/burlesque. The attendant becomes a pimp, the stepfather a corrupt clergyman, and the female psychiatrist the head trainer. This is the second level of reality the “Brothel Level.” It is populated Wizard-of-Oz-style by the same people Babydoll encountered when she entered the asylum including her bevy of attractive sex workers: Sweet Pea, Blondie, Daisy, and Rocket. Babydoll is told that “The High Roller” is on his way to deflower her in five days, a span that corresponds to the lobotomy countdown in the Asylum Level. On this level, the male oppressors are exaggeration further into caricatures of corruption and privelege. The cigar-puffing “Mayor” is especially creepy.

Interestingly, at this level of reality Carla Gugino’s doctor is reduced to an active participant of the subjugation of the girls, whereas in the ground level she is only ignorant of the danger posed by her staff. In the brothel, Babydoll is forced to dance. We never see what her dancing looks like at this level, but the other characters all find it spectacular. Males in particular seem to be helplessly enchanted while she dances. The setting and costumes, as well as the pimp’s reaction seem to indicate that a pole might well complement the routine. In any case, the men are so dazzled that Babydoll hatches a scheme to steal the items she needs to escape the brothel (all items that she spotted on her way into the Asylum Level). At least she is taking an active role in earning her freedom.

But every time the music cues and we see Babydoll start to shuffle, the camera pulls in tight and we see what she is imagining as she dances. These fantastical sequences are what got this movie made, and the source of much of the criticism of the film. Sucker Punch works best when Snyder brings us into these “Fantasy Level” sequences. They can get a little samey, and do have the slight echo of a genre checklist that the studio hoped would get the geeks of the world salivating. But the anarchic energy of these scenes makes up for it. It is the cinema of “what if?”. Snyder lets fly with some of the same wild enthusiasm that would lead a kid to wonder, why can’t a cop carry an axe and fight dinosaur robots? The mash-ups in Sucker Punch at the Fantasy Level are the most fun the movie offers.

Babydoll and her sexy sidekicks use mech armor to fight their way through a battlefield filled with steampunk Nazi zombies, engage in aerial plane to dragon combat over a sea of orcs, and engage in gun/sword fights with robots on a train. How could you not like that? The Fantasy Level is the Jungian col­lec­tive un­con­scious, so it has room for all these disparate elements to live and breathe together. Babydoll’s tasks in these fictional worlds are her attempts to use her creativity to construct a new reality better and more exciting than the one that exploits her in the Asylum Level. It’s a little like the Imaginationland episode of South Park. Babydoll can use ninja swords against robots despite the fact that the Asylum Level is in the mid-20th century, because in the pure realm of the imagination all the genre tropes that have existed or will ever exist can occur at the same time.

The problem is that in the Fantasy Level, Babydoll acts for herself and in her own interest. She takes the initiative and through her own agency, engages in admittedly bad-ass battles. She becomes the subject of the story instead of its object. At least that’s what Snyder was shooting for. The problem is that in the Prime Reality where you, me, and Snyder all live we are watching these fantasies play out. From our point of view, these empowering acts are just further exploitations. Now, Babydoll and the girls can let it all hang out for us: The Audience Level. And because of that final abstractions, the story cannot rise above the level of exploitation: sexy girls in sexy clothes = teh hawt.

There’s nothing the director could have done. It’s easy to write Sucker Punch off as a tawdry attempt to titillate, but I give Snyder more credit. I think he did want to engage with issues of female agency. Tongue firmly in cheek, to be sure, but the intent was serious. I don’t know how much you can blame him for failing to do the impossible, but as long as he keeps delivering gorgeously constructed films like Sucker Punch, I’ll keep hanging in there for the film that perfectly matches his ambitions to his abilities.

On Shaky Ground: The Green Zone Movie Review

The Green Zone looks like a Bourne movie, which comes as no surprise considering that the director, Paul Greengrass was behind the wheel for the last two movies in that trilogy and the main character is played by Jason Bourne himself, Matt Damon. But while the visceral impact of the shaky-camera delivers the same sort of highly-immersive quality to the action sequences, the overall tone of The Green Zone is radically different from any Ultimatums or Supremacies that may have preceded it. In terms of tone, the movie gracefully avoids the more shrill agitprop of some other Issue Films that have tackled the costs of our military presence in Iraq. But it still tends toward making its points with a heavy hand and a clear agenda.

To its credit, The Green Zone is a little more The Hurt Locker than In the Valley of Elah. The film deals with the question of the lack of WMDs in Iraq in the early days of the invasion by dressing it up in action movie drag. Matt Damon plays an idealistic American special forces soldier who becomes obsessed with finding the Weapons of Mass Destruction that predicated the invasion in the first place. After coming up empty several times he begins to question the intelligence that keeps sending him on wild goose chases that yield pigeon-crap-soaked toilet factories in place of chemical or biological weapons. His questioning meets several dead-ends before he discovers an Iraqi general who has special information about the WMD program in Iraq. Spolier alert for those not paying attention: There was no such program and no such weapons.

The problem of whether the administration was merely negligent in regard to the quality of the intelligence doesn’t get a serious examination in the movie. Greg Kinnear’s shady bureaucrat takes on the role of the villain and the film clearly implicates him as intentionally working off bad intel and convincing others to do the same with full knowledge that what they had was bunk. His casual disregard for the truth and self-serving desire to shift focus away from WMDs and onto democracy in Iraq is positively cartoonish in its cliched simplicity. Perhaps such a clear-cut villain was necessary for the thriller side of the movie to come to the fore in the film’s final act but it does a poor job of dealing with the intelligence failures in an evenhanded way.

As message movies go, it’s less strident than some but more simplistic than others. Still, if it’s been a few years since you last saw Matt Damon kicking ass in steadycam, and you want to watch things go boom real good you could do worse than The Green Zone.

The Summer So Far (At the Movies)

Star Trek was amazing. I can’t imagine a better relaunch for a tired franchise than what J.J. Abrams and company delivered. I was pretty much the target demo for the reboot, since I was not a big fan of any of the previous incarnations of the series aside from a brief fluttering of interest anytime The Borg showed up. I know next to nothing about the canon or the long-term storylines. I was always slightly turned off by all the confusing time-travel nonsense that previously made the series inaccessible, and Abrams wisely sidestepped any of that nonsense while giving the diehard fans an out in the form of some easy to understand time-travel nonsense. In order to retain my critical street cred, I thought maybe they went a little over the top with the lens flares and a few of the performances (I’m looking at you, McCoy) danced precariously close to impressions. But those are minor, trivial things that didn’t keep me from enjoying a great film.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was better than I thought it would be, but still managed to kind of suck. Talk about your wasted opportunities. There was a decent story here, but the constant mutant cameos kept distracting me from it. I knew something was up when Wolverine barely showed up in any of the trailers for his own movie. The result was an overstuffed mess, with needlessly cheesy fight scenes and some suspect special effects. Not that great.

Terminator: Salvation was entertaining, although it also has to fall into the missed opportunity column. I was glad to see the action shift to the actual post-apocalyptic war with the machines instead of time travelling to kill the future messiah. The Fallout-esque scene where Kyle Reese and Marcus Wright survey the rubble that used to be Los Angeles was appropriately foreboding, while the advanced technology of SKYnet made for some sweet-ass chases and battles. The plot veered wildly from awesomeness to incoherence, averaging out to highly unlikely. Not everyone has motivations that make sense and people behave in strange, illogical ways. I also wish that the previews hadn’t revealed Marcus Wright’s true nature, as the plot treats it like a surprising revelation. I would have figured it out pretty quickly, but it would have been more enjoyable if they at least tried to keep it a surprise.

In Star Trek, Starfleet Academy is based in San Francisco in my old neighborhood. That was kind of cool, especially when the evil Romulan warlord started to destroy it with his Fire Drill of Death. But I started to feel like Hollywood was trying to tell me something when SKYnet also chose to put it’s headquarters in San Francisco. Suspicious…

My Masturbatory Self-Indulgence Has a First Name, It’s O-S-C-A-R

Here’s my absolutely 100% guaranteed lock of the night for the upcoming Academy Awards: It will be boring, meaningless, and a waste of time for everyone involved.

I love movies more than most people do. At this stage of my life I could use my accumulated Movie Watcher points to make a down payment on a Toyota Corolla or finance a vacation to Toronto if they would accept my AMC card. I go almost every week and I see everything from indies flicks about gay cowboys eating ice cream to broad romantic comedies where people of a certain gender may or may not be into someone of the other. I read movie blogs all the time. I can usually tell you what new films are coming out on any given Friday without having to consult Fandango.

But for all the love I have for Hollwood’s output, I have an equal amount of scorn for award shows like the Oscars. From the vapid commentary on what the starlets are wearing as they walk down the red carpet to the awkwardly phrased acceptance speeches the entire broadcast strikes me as a supreme waste of time. I’m all for recognizing outstanding work in screenplays, direction, and acting but the whole affair is such an overblown exercise in celebrity obsession. Too much attention goes to dissecting hairstyles and dresses or explaining the dating choices of the attendees and not enough on the actual content of the work that the show is ostensibly designed to recognize.

Hugh Jackman is hosting this year. While I would be hard-pressed to say an unkind word about Wolverine, I don’t know that he can successfully hold the attention of the viewer through the whole broadcast. Past hosts with extensive comedy experience like Jon Stewart and Dave Letterman have had trouble keeping the show moving forward so Jackman will be in good company if he stumbles.

But my problems go beyond annoyance with the pomp and circumstance that surround the ceremony and into the conceptual core. The Academy makes some odd choices in the way  it picks nominees, trying to split the difference between rewarding risk-taking heartfelt turns in little seen films like The Visitor and recognizing the Oscar Bait showiness of Artful Roles like Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the titular Benjamin Buttons. But nobody saw the former and the latter was as safe and conventional as it could be. That dichotomy between the unseen and the overseen lies at the heart of why the Academy Awards can never truly become a means of either recognizing the best or rewarding the riskiest.

Add to that the smug, self-congratulatory tone that can’t help but seep out of a four hour telecast of actors honoring themselves and you have a truly unbearable night of television.

Derivative Pap, Actually: He’s Just Not That Into You Movie Review

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I am not the target market for He’s Just Not That Into You. Even putting my Y-chromosomes and dangly bits aside for a moment, my disdain for the source material alone is enough to put me outside the target demographic of single women who can’t figure out that a guy who treats them like crap might not like them. I have never kvetched with a gaggle of my best guyfriends over whether the type of shoes a girl was wearing might change the meaning of her unfulfilled promise to call me later.

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I worked at a bookstore when Greg Behrendt’s inexplicably popular book first rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists, and even then I was mystified by its success. While I didn’t read it outright, I did glance through it a few times to the point where I feel confident that I understand its premise of laying bare the male psyche for female readers. What I don’t understand is the appeal. None of the author’s points were insightful enough for true self-help stuff, nor were they funny enough for pure comedy.

It seemd like a bunch of glaringly obvious observations about men’s romantic behavior injected into some mildly amusing scenarios and anecdotes.

And it was. That summary could serve as the log line for the film version as well.

The performances are all solid enough and the film never descends to palpable awfulness, but it never transcends its source material to become anything better than a mildly inoffensive exercise in bland.It tries for all the right notes and never totally fails to hit them, but it elicits more smirks than laughs (although there are a few chuckles).

The problem isn’t that there are too many stories, but the film does linger on a few for too long and crams too much action into them. I suppose that to illustrate the book’s advice, the movie had to have several different stages of relationship to work with, but there is no real economy of storytelling. The longstanding tension between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston over not getting married despite seven years of being together, for example sputters on long after the audience gets the point. Bradley Cooper once again plays kind of a douchebag, but does an excellent job at making his part of a married man driven to stray by the wily charms of skinny-dipping yoga instructor Scarlett Johansen into a relatable character.

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I like a good romantic comedy as much as the next guy. I have no problem with films designed to tackle issues of dating, love, and romance although the vast majority of them seem kind of stupid. Billed as a date movie, He’s Just Not That Into You certainly delivers the goods. It is mildly amusing, and not a complete waste of time. This one might have been better than average: a large cast of photogenic characters at various stages of romantic entanglement play out their stories in a series of slightly interconnected vignettes. But I know Love, Actually. I have seen Love, Actually. And this film, sir, is no Love, Actually.

Two Candy Hearts (Out of Five):

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Visitors and Vikings, Monsters and Mead: Outlander Movie Review

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Here is what you should know: Outlander is a retelling of Beowulf where the hero is an intergalactic soldier who, after landing on 12th century Earth, teams up with a bunch of  Viking warriors to slay an alien monster that caused his space ship to crash.

That’s right. It’s about Vikings versus Aliens. If the premise alone isn’t evocative enough, this film includes a scene where the warriors attack the extraterrestrial Grendel with swords forged from the crashed space ship.

outlandersword1If that description strikes you as more head-shakingly goofy than fist-pumpingly awesome, than you will hate this movie. Also, we are not friends anymore.

It sounds like the type of high-concept drek that should air on the Sci-Fi channel some Saturday night between Mansquito sequels and in lesser hands it could have been. But high production values and a full-on commitment to the story keep Outlander in the realm of true pulp storytelling. All the actors seem to have fun with their performances without descending into pure camp. This movie is fun from start to finish.

Jim Caviezel plays the titular hero. He is a soldier named Kainan from an alien race who comes hurtling down to Earth in the opening scene. After he burns a computerized crash course on local language and customs into his retina, he sets about tracking down the monster (called a Moorwhen) that caused his ship to go down and killed his commander. He soon finds himself in Heurot, a Viking settlement where King Hrothgar (John  Hurt) and his hot warriorress daughter Freya (Sophia Myles) like to pass the time practicing their sword fighting in the mead hall and contemplating an arranged marriage with bad-boy Wulfric, who soon becomes a rival/BFF for our alien hero.

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If you have ever seen any movie ever, you should know the village soon comes under attack by the Moorwhen. Kainan has to help the settlement fight off the creature as well as attacks from a nearby town whose war-chief blames the Heurot for the slaughter of his own village. Perennial genre star Ron “Hellboy” Perlman plays the rival chief, and brings some welcome bad-assery to the film with a war hammer and celtic facial tattoo.

Most of the film revolves around Kainan slowly gaining acceptance into the Viking society. The story plays fast and loose with the Beowulf myth but includes many of the essential beats like the warriors settling down to party after killing a bear and mistaking it for the true monster and a climactic showdown in an underwater cave. There are a few digressions, including the budding romance between Kainan and Freya and an extended (to the point of becoming tiresome) exploration of some Viking drinking games (although the shield running sequence does come into play later). It bears a few cursory similarities to other retellings of the legend, but the fanciful space opera elements and the flashbacks to Kainan’s time as a colonial soldier set it apart. And the fact that the story is engaging, the cinematography is coherent, and the special effects servicable (excepting a few questionable scenes with the monster) set it apart from other recent Viking fare. I did not like Pathfinder.

I am a sucker for mythological remixes. I love to see Bewulf with aliens, The Odyssey in early 20th cenutry Dublin, or Orpheus as a rock singer. I also have a documented prediliction for awesome (and ridiculous) premises, and the very idea of Vikings fighting aliens is enough to get me into the theatre seat. So maybe I’m not the most impartial of judges for this movie, but from where I stand Outlander delivers on the premise and then some. Gimmicky? Sure, but the film is comfortable with that and so am I.

Four and One-Half Alien Spacemetal Swords (Out of Five):

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