Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Star Trek Beyond"

 3.5 / 5 

Star Trek Beyond is the best of the rebooted Star Trek movies, better than the first one and vastly superior to Star Trek Into Darkness, but as far as the Star Trek films overall, it's low on the list, maybe about on par with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

But even the worst of the first wave of Star Trek movies, and even the least of the episodes of the original series, have something Star Trek Beyond lacks: a believable, complex interaction between its main characters.

Star Trek has always been at its finest, to me, when the crew works together.  The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has a rare spirit and camaraderie.  Behind his back, while guzzling down some Romulan ale, I always suspect Uhura and Sulu and Scotty and Chekov have some unpleasant things to say about Capt. James T. Kirk, but to his face, they have nothing but respect and even admiration for him.  Meanwhile, Kirk could not ask for any more loyal and true friends than "Bones" McCoy and Mr. Spock.  He can rely on them for anything, and they him.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there is a perfect moment when Kirk turns to Spock's chair and sees it empty, and he knows the worst has happened.  When he finds Spock, McCoy and Scotty have to pull Kirk away from his own possible death, because they know he would not think before sacrificing himself for the sake of his friend.

In Star Trek Beyond, Kirk and Spock seem to be cordial co-workers.  There is still a stiltedness between them, between everyone on the bridge.  They all seem relatively new to each other, and at the beginning of the movie, when Kirk records a captain's log entry in which he talks about the three years they have spent in deep space, we see scenes of the Enterprise's crew acting more or less like kids in a college dorm.

It is interesting to compare way the crew relates to each other in the current Star Trek movies to what we know of the original Star Trek, when the crew knew each other so well, was aware of each others' strengths and limitations instinctively.  Perhaps this is because by the time William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, et. al., got around to making movies, they had been living with their characters for 15 years.  It wasn't just their characters that had worked together for years, it was the actors, too.

While Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana and the late Anton Yeltsin are all attractive, entertaining people, they have a difficult time replicating that easy, comfortable way with each other.  When DeForest Kelley chided Leonard Nimoy, it seemed real and funny; when Urban does it to Quinto, it seems forced and stiff.  The newest Star Treks probably read better on paper than they play on screen.

But all that doesn't really matter much to the makers of these movies, because they want to deliver blockbuster, $150-million action films, and on that level, the films deliver.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, Star Trek was about ideas; today, it's about things that blow up.  There's nothing inherently wrong with that.  Star Trek Beyond wants to be a good action movie, and it manages that, with characters that look and act mostly like Star Trek characters look and act.  Like 2009's Star Trek before it (but not like Star Trek Into Darkness), it's a reasonably good facsimile of what is now known as "the Star Trek franchise."

Based on the opening credits, this is the sort of movie that relies three or four production companies, in addition to a major studio, for its existence.  One of those is a Chinese co-production company.  None of that should matter, except that we have moved a long, long, long way from Paramount Pictures presenting a Gene Roddenberry Production; Star Trek no longer really belongs to anyone except brand-management executives, and that has an impact on the film itself.

It isn't entirely soulless, but it is souped-up and amped-up, and there are moments when you can almost hear a discussion with a studio executive about what I assume must have been some more leisurely paced scenes in which characters were able to explain what was happening on screen.  Those discussions probably entailed an executive saying, "Cut out those whole three pages and we'll cover it with a line."

That could explain why we get about 90 percent of the way through the movie when we finally learn a little bit about the motives of the main villain, a scary-looking thug named Krall.  When the motive comes, it's not a bad one, but the knowledge it reveals have propelled an entire film, though one more interested in exploring some grand ideas.

Earlier in the movie, another alien character gets the whole story going by telling Kirk and his crew that her ship needs help.  They don't know her ship, they have nothing to go on but her story -- and yet, off they go to help her.  I understand that these Star Trek movies take place in a parallel universe, and therefore are not technically related to the first movies, but ... certainly the United Federation of Planets requires more than a 10-second explanation ("They attacked our ship ... we don't know who they are") before embarking upon a major mission at the request of a stranger?

I went to see Star Trek Beyond ("beyond what," is a question that still dogs me -- just as I never learned exactly what the darkness was into which the stars were trekking last time) with some series Star Trek fans.  Each in his or her way, they all know the important things to know about Star Trek.  After watching Star Trek Beyond, the general consensus seemed to have been: "cheesy," "silly," "ridiculous," but also "charming" and "fun."

Yes, it is charming and fun, and, yes, it is cheesy, silly and ridiculous, especially when Star Trek momentarily becomes Mad Max and Kirk rides a centuries-old motorcycle through a prisoner camp.  That is ridiculous.  It doesn't mean the action doesn't make sense in the context of the story -- it does. But it does beg bigger questions, like why we are being offered a Star Trek in which Kirk rides a motorcycle, and in which the Beastie Boys' "Fight tha Power" becomes a plot point.  (One of the film's better jokes comes when the cacophonous music of the late 20th century blasts through speakers, and McCoy says, "Is that classical music," to which Spock replies, "I believe it is.")  I very much like a new character, Jaylah, played by Sofia Nutella, who I hope will become a key addition to future movies.

Too much of Star Trek Beyond, though, seems calculated to fit the mold of what a "modern" Star Trek movie "should be."  But the calculations have gone a little nutty; indeed, tthe key miscaluation is that the mold needed to be reformulated.  Sure, Shatner and Nimoy and the rest were getting too old to keep it up (though that doesn't stop Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, now, does it?), but there came a critical misunderstanding of what audiences wanted by casting new actors in the roles of Kirk, et. al., in their "younger" selves.

Now, seven years later, we're at an interesting place: Pine, Quinto, Urban, Saldana, Pegg are themselves aging at a normal rate of speed, which means Pine is now as old as Shatner was when he played Kirk in the series.  So, in the next few years, will we see an Enterprise led by men in arrested development, who play at war and diplomacy like the cocky boys they were the first two times around -- or will we see them age, take on series emotional crises, learn more about each other, succeed and fail enough to realize what flawed, imperfect people they are.

That's what we knew about the original crew of the Starship Enterprise.  They weren't perfect.  They didn't always treat each other well.  They squabbled.  They were pushy and loud.  They were good at their jobs but could always be better, and working alongside each other made them better over time, to the point that you can now point to the crew of the Enterprise as an ideal workplace team.

These new kids, though, they're still just learning.  Give them time, I suppose.  Give them a chance to really try each other out, to see each other as more than simple archetypes, to find their characters and bring those people to life, not caricatures of the performances we've seen elsewhere.

Based on Star Trek Beyond, I think the cast of the new Star Trek movies is finally getting it.  They've got a long way to go.  But then, they've got at least two years left on this five-year mission, so, give them time.  To the crew of the new Enterprise, I'd like to repeat the words of your own Captain at a later point of his life: "I'm going to have to ask you all to grow up a little sooner than expected."

They're making a lot of progress.  Star Trek Beyond has many very good qualities to recommend it, but I still don't think they're quite there yet.  As pure, anonymous action films, they're grand.  As real Star Trek movies, filled with the sort of crises and character revelation we expect, they're making progress, but they still have a little ways to go.  And if you don't want to make real Star Trek movies, as it's been suggested is the sentiment of some top people involved with these films, then the question becomes, why are you making Star Trek movies?  They do something different.  And in Beyond it's clear that the two sides of Trek are beginning to do battle; I have a feeling the serious, thoughtful side is going to win out next time.  (Keep in mind, the "serious, thoughtful" side also gave us Wrath of Khan -- "serious" and "thoughtful" don't have to mean boring or nostalgic.)

I'm excited to see what happens once they get it down perfectly.

They're very, very close.

July 24, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, July 10, 2016

"Independence Day: Resurgence"

 2 / 5 

Watching Independence Day: Resurgence is like visiting your old high school.  Everything looks the same, which is less amusing than depressing; time seems to have passed the place by, and as you walk the halls it begins to seem impossible that you could have once put so much emphasis on something so innocuous.

You hoped it would be fun to remember the old times, but it's just disappointing.

Twenty years ago, when the world was so much younger, Independence Day seemed like a revelation.  What a cast!  What great visual effects!  What a rousing climax!  It was such a popular success it was even on the cover of Time magazine.

And now it plays every other day on HBO.  The world has gotten bigger in 20 years, and Independence Day has gotten a bit smaller, with its clunky computers and old-fashioned technology, not to mention old-fashioned American patriotism.

In Independence Day: Resurgence, 20 years have also passed in the story, and after the American-led defeat of the aliens, the world has come together and rallied 'round the red, white and blue so much that the President leads a worldwide coalition.  There's a lot of talk early on in the movie about how the defeat of the aliens led to a world that has come together as a people, but there are still Americans and they are still the best.

Among the many things America leads is an intergalactic defense system, built with the technology that the world discovered when it looked inside the alien ships.  In the 2016 of Independence Day: Resurgence, we have the ability to put defense systems in the orbit of Saturn, we have mag-lev trains, we have global peace ... but America has given the entire planet a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that does not serve anyone well when a defense outpost on the moon sees an alien spaceship.  The U.S. President orders it shot down.

In fairly short order, they discover that the thing they shot wasn't one of "them," it was actually a helpful alien coming to warn the people of Earth that "they" were coming back.

The alien ship descends.  Instead of being a few miles long, it's thousands of miles long this time.  It lands inelegantly on the side of Earth and attaches itself like a leach, destroying all of the world's favorite cities in the process, except L.A., San Francisco and Las Vegas because there are better landmarks that haven't been destroyed on-screen quite as often in the past 20 years as the Golden Gate Bridge.

The President from the first film, who is still played by Bill Pullman, suddenly comes out of a catatonic state he has been in, and Brent Spiner wakes up from a coma, looking much more than 20 years older, and there's a lot of talk about how they should have seen this coming.

Well, I'll say.

But these not-very-brilliant strategists who didn't think about the idea of a sequel so are caught off guard when "they" come back suddenly all of them are figuring ways to outsmart this superior alien species that is trying to drill down to the Earth's core to suck it dry and power their ships.  It takes Jeff Goldblum's character about three seconds to figure out what they are doing.  Where was this guy when we were debating whether those satellite photos showed weapons of mass destruction or not?  This guy can figure it all out in a heartbeat.

A space probe they have captured turns out to -- get this -- speak English with a perfect command of American vernacular and explains all of the rest of it to the whole cast, who then launch an assault on the ship in about, oh, 90 minutes.

Also, the President dies in an alien attack, and so does her entire cabinet and the entire line of succession, but it takes about six seconds for everyone to decide that a military general will become President; there's no discussion about this, because there isn't time.  They have about two hours until the aliens suck out the Earth's core.

As I type all of this, Independence Day: Resurgence sounds like exactly the kind of whacked out zaniness that should be grandly entertaining.  It's so remarkably stupid and backward that it should be enjoyable on a guilty-pleasure basis, but it's not.  It's made my people who seem wholly unaware of how the world has changed since 1996, that maybe watching entire cities filled with people get devastated might not be so fun anymore.

It wants to recapture that gung-ho, militaristic rah-rah-ness of the first film without bothering to consider that things on the real Earth are pretty damned bad right now, and that if you really want to show how the world has come together, you might want to show that someone other than Americans can lead the way, that there is hope that we really can work together without making the White House the symbol for all governments.

But even beyond the film's seeming lack of awareness of how the real world operates, Independence Day: Resurgence just can't shake off its biggest problem, which is that we've seen all this done dozens of times since then, and better.  Independence Day had the shock of the new in 1996, seemed to break new ground.  It was a film everyone rushed out to see on the biggest screen possible, with the best sound, because it was such a spectacle.

Independence Day: Resurgence doesn't feel special.  It hasn't re-thought its story or its approach, doesn't dazzle in any way, it's just more of the same thing that we saw last week on HBO.

In your living room, on a rainy Saturday afternoon while you're folding laundry, Independence Day: Resurgence might offer an enjoyable distraction.  As a cinematic event, though, it doesn't hold the attention.  It's like going to your 20th high school reunion and realizing that the Big Man on Campus still thinks he's hot stuff.  At first it's silly, then it's embarrassing, and after a while you just want to leave and be thankful that it's him and not you stuck trying to relive a moment of glory.

Viewed July 10, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 9, 2016

"The Legend of Tarzan"

 4 / 5 

After seeing The Legend of Tarzan, I found this review by Emily, which tells you pretty much all you really need to know about the movie.  Judging by the reactions of the audience I sat with on a late Friday-night showing, many people are seeing it for exactly the reason Emily did: Alexander Skarsgård, who spends half of the movie shirtless.  I can imagine worse reasons to see a movie.

Reactions similar to Emily's were rampant when I saw it.  There were some audible gasps when Tarzan took off his shirt.  There were equally audible moans, and not of dissatisfaction, when Tarzan and Jane, played by Margot Robbie, retreated into her bedroom for a little afternoon delight.

I've read stories about how Rudolph Valentino used to cause women to swoon in movies.  Some men, too, I imagine, but back then they would have had to hide their reaction.  As long as I've been going to the movies, swooning hasn't really been a thing, but if enough people see The Legend of Tarzan and have similar responses to Emily and the people in my audience, swooning in movie theaters could well make a comeback.

And it won't be just the women.  We live in an allegedly enlightened society.  Alexander Skarsgård is old and wise enough to know there are men who find his body just as perfectly perfect and unbelievably unbelievable to see the movie because he's in it.  And while watching The Legend of Tarzan, there will be many men who think, if only for a fleeting moment, "What if Professor Porter had had a son instead of a daughter? What if it were, 'Me Tarzan, you James'?"

Ok, maybe there won't be many.  There was me, though.  I thought that.  I thought that even while I watched Tarzan and Jane make love to each other and I felt not a twinge of jealousy, not even a little bit, because I was too busy watching Tarzan and Jane making love -- and if that doesn't tap into some primal instinct that transcends sexual orientation, I don't know what does.

But surely The Legend of Tarzan can't just be some soft-core porn exercise, right?  Didn't Bo Derek do that in the early 1980s?  No, you're right.  It's not.  Not at all.  But it does know and understand its subject matter enough to know that sexuality, that most raw of human natures, is fundamental to the Tarzan stories, whether or not it's front and center.  Jane loves Tarzan, and at least at first, it's not because he's a terrific conversationalist.

Think about the covers of cheap paperbacks and comic books, where Tarzan wearing just a loin cloth and, invariably, Jane is wearing clothing that's stripped and ripped and falling off of her, suggestive of ... well, not a nice, easy, comfortable life, but one that is savage and filled with heat and excitement.

My friend Josh, an avid Tarzan fan and expert, showed me some book covers that match almost perfectly to frames of The Legend of Tarzan.  I said, "But Jane isn't naked in this movie, is she?"  He assured me she is not.  Then I saw the film.  Jane is not naked.  Not technically, at least.  The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13.  But, boy, if she could be, she would be -- and it wouldn't seem completely out of place.

Very little is out of place in this Tarzan -- there is the famous Tarzan yell, there is vine swinging, there is a family of great apes, and there are elephants and alligators and hippopotami that can crush an alligator's back with one bite, as Jane explains to an enraptured group of children when she's at Greystoke Manor in England, years after she and Tarzan have returned from the jungle.

She has a strong and persistent urge to return to Africa, where she grew up.  She considers it her home.  John Clayton, as Tarzan is now known, has a more complicated relationship to his upbringing.  He wants to put it behind him, but it has made him a celebrity -- and that celebrity can be used, he is told as the film begins, in England's efforts to prevent King Leopold of Belgium from enslaving the entire Congo.

That's not exactly how the movie starts, it is more complicated than that -- but it isn't.  What it boils down to its that Leopold's emissary, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, an actor who can apparently no longer play good guys), has a handle on a huge deposit of diamonds that sits right under the land a tribe of savage warriors.

Waltz has managed, by proxy, to convince Tarzan/John Clayton, to return to Africa and ensure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.  (The movie neither steps away from nor addresses the ugly undertone that the assumption is any colonial hands are better than leaving it with its native people.)

This all leads to a rousing adventure told by people who clearly have a passion and love for Tarzan and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The Legend of Tarzan contains the spirit of Tarzan and everything Burroughs thought his creation to be, and it upgrades the action just enough through the endless use of CGI (more about that in amount) to make it look and feel compelling to modern audiences.

John/Tarzan agrees to go, but not before Jane tells him that she's going with him.  He tries to put up a fight, but he learned a long time ago not to try to fight with Jane.  They go to Africa.  The story gets underway.  They find the bad guys and work to defeat them.

And that is the core of the story.  It is, in the end, as simple as any great adventure, with some wonderfully realized characters and situations surrounding the main action.  But it's really quite simple: A bad guy wants to take over and Tarzan has to stop him.

While this version by necessity features some important flashbacks that help us understand who Tarzan is and where he came from, it is not an origin story, which is one of the most refreshing things about it.  The Legend of Tarzan is entirely in the trendy mold of superhero films, and Tarzan himself is as much a superhero as any of them, but it approaches the story with a sense of fun and faithfulness that is so sorely missing from the recent spate of comic adaptations.

This is not a grim, sullen Tarzan.  Despite its less savory moments, it is a joyful movie. You do not grow anxious sensing there will be some sort of test about it on the Internet tomorrow.  You can watch it and stare at Skarsgård (and, yes, Robbie, if you prefer) and tune out a lot of the dialogue, and still enjoy it immensely. Or you can watch closely and ponder many of the complex goals the former "ape man" is trying to solve: An invading army is approaching, and the time has come for different tribes of gorillas and different species of animals to start working together to defeat a common enemy -- an enemy who has convinced a great many people that his money-driven quest is noble.

At a time when race, violence, weapons and words are being used to foment violence among different groups, it's refreshing to see a movie that relies on unity among different people (and animals) to be what saves the day.

But don't take this all to mean that everything about The Legend of Tarzan works.  Margot Robbie, an actor I generally admire quite a lot, looks and sounds (at least at first) too much like a 21st century California beach girl to be entirely convincing; her Jane grew on me, but it took a while.  I'd like to have known a little bit more about Tarzan's transition from jungle to city, and about the perils his parents faced.  Tarzan is filled with a lot of small, blank plot holes that it leaves up to the audience to work out.

And the CG isn't always effective.  It's a shame for a film like this to come so soon after the wholly believable Jungle Book remake, because it attempts too much with CG.  One key scene in which Tarzan and some other characters use vines to swoop onto a speeding train is so over-the-top that it almost harms the movie.

The Legend of Tarzan also suffers at times because the director, David Yates, applies a sort of corporate anonymity to the filmmaking style. It frequently seems less directed than project managed, with a little extra brand management thrown in.  (The on-screen title isn't actually The Legend of Tarzan. It's The Legend of Tarzan®.)

There's also the complex, difficult question of race.  It just can't be ignored.  Does Tarzan even belong in a time that is filled with such racial strife?  Is it wise to depict a story in which white men come to the rescue of black natives?

They are fair questions, and those issues are ones the film doesn't try to tackle.  This is not a revisionist Tarzan, it is Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, updated to fit certain modern sensibilities.  The Congolese people it shows are intelligent, independent and fiercely loyal.  They are complex and interesting characters, certainly much more than the buffoons Tarzan and Jane interact with back at home.

Tarzan is working to defeat colonialism, to rescue hundreds of people captured as slaves, and to ensure a certain independence for the people he knows from what is, in the end, his own native land.  The Legend of Tarzan might not be able to completely convince those who feel Burroughs' vision of a white savior for Africa is entirely out of place in today's world.

But to my mind, the more important question is whether we have a story that instills a sense of joy and hope, of excitement and adventure, of community and purpose.  The Legend of Tarzan has its faults, but is strength of conviction isn't one of them, nor is its ultimate effect:

It's a grand movie.  And Alexander Skarsgård has his shirt off in most of it.

Viewed July 8, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, July 4, 2016

"The Conjuring 2"

 2.5 / 5 

Movie-wise, I have a secret shame.

When I watch horror movies, which I generally try not to do even though some of them are among my favorite movies, I watch them with my eyes open but my ears shut.

In movies like The Exorcist, Alien or The Fly, which are some of those horror movies I count among my favorites, plugging your ears with your thumbs will have absolutely no effect.  These are movies that earn their scares not by having things jump out at you and go "Boo!" but by creating a sense of dread that just keeps building and building and building until the suspense and fear are so strong that you squirm in your seat and look away from the screen because you're afraid of what's going to happen next.

But as anyone who has seen a horror film in the past, oh, 30 years or so knows, the easiest way to get an audience screaming goes something like this: The main character, usually but not always a woman, is in a dark room and knows that something else is in there with her.  The soundtrack is quiet and the shot is unbroken as she stops and her eyes get wide.  What she fears is very close by.  Then ...

Boooooooooom! The jump cut to the scary thing is accompanied by a thunderous clap on the soundtrack and the audience jumps back in terror.

Well, of course they do.  Sit in a quiet room and suddenly scream loudly and see if everyone doesn't jump, even if they're not in a haunted house.  It always gets the adrenaline pumping, but it's a cheap trick.  It confuses fear with shock.

James Wan's impressive 2013 film The Conjuring understood the difference.  It was genuinely unnerving and created an atmosphere of such ominous anxiety that plugging my ears made no difference; the fear was too palpable, the movie too well-constructed to rely on cheap gimmicks.

The memory of such a terrific horror movie was why I was looking forward to watching The Conjuring 2, and for the first half-hour or so I tried the old thumbs-in-the-ear trick, and it was a major disappointment to discover that this time around the trick worked.

The Conjuring 2 begins with a familiar set of windows: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are in the infamous Amityville house, trying to determine whether Ronald DeFeo shot his family intentionally -- or if he was under the control of a demonic force.  During a seance, Lorraine encounters the demon that allegedly pushed DeFeo to his crimes, and she believes it to be the most sinister evil force she's ever seen.

Meanwhile, over in England ... a fatherless family living in public housing begin experiencing inexplicable happenings.  One of the girls, 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), seems to be the center of the activity, and as it ratchets up in intensity, the family flees the house and contacts the media.  The story makes its way to the Warrens, who go to England to investigate the increasingly violent events, which seem to be the work of the ghost of a man named Bill, who used to live in the house and wants it back.

As horror films go, nothing is at all wrong with the outline of the plot of The Conjuring 2, and Wilson and Farmiga are once again convincing and believable in their roles, joined by some impressive British actors, including Frances O'Connor as the mother.

But The Conjuring 2 seems to go on forever.  It is weighed down by long, long stretches where nothing happens -- by which I don't mean nothing scary, but nothing of any real consequence whatsoever.  The Conjuring 2 may want to seem deliberately placed, but it's just glacially paced at times, with entire scenes that seem completely out of place.

There are endless scenes of people debating whether paranormal activity is real or not, how to prove that it's a hoax.  The characters discuss these points and then, 15 minutes later, discuss them again.  At one critical juncture, Patrick Wilson stops the show by performing the entirety of Elvis Presley's "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You" on the guitar.  Wilson does a great Elvis.  Whatever else we are supposed to take away from this scene, and the loving looks that Farmiga gives to him, is unclear.

Long and short, there are so many extraneous scenes like this in The Conjuring 2 that the only way to accurately describe the movie is to say that it drags.  Its 2 hour, 14 minute running time could have been cut by a good 30 or 40 minutes, which would have resulted in a tighter, scarier, better movie.

By the end of The Conjuring 2, my thumbs were down by my lap, not in my ears, and even though I hate the old boooooooooom! trick, sometimes it's better to suffer through it than to watch a horror movie that can't quite deliver the goods.

Viewed July 4, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Swiss Army Man"

 4.5 / 5 

Midway through the mildly shocking, mildly offensive and unexpectedly affecting Swiss Army Man, one of the main characters watches a shadow-puppet version of famous movies performed by the other.  For a fleeting moment, a cutout version of Elliot and E.T. riding a flying bicycle flickers on the screen.

At that moment, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial flickered across the private movie screen in my brain, and I remembered how the movie is about a wrinkly, creepy-looking creature who appears out of nowhere and becomes the guiding force of of a boy who needs a friend. They have quite an adventure together.

That's when it dawned on me: Swiss Army Man is, despite the ghastliness of its setup (which I'll get to in a moment) is as sweet-spirited and awed by the enormity of life as Steven Spielberg's film. It's about a creepy-looking creature who appears out of nowhere and becomes the guiding force of a man who needs a friend.  They have quite an adventure together.

Though I wouldn't dream of spoiling Swiss Army Man's final scene, it contains some famous Spielbergian cinematic tropes, as a group of people watch with wide eyes and open mouths as something they never imagined possible happens right in front of their eyes.  A little girl laughs, because she knows that this impossible thing is true.

I watched Swiss Army Man with a similar smile on my face.  It's about loneliness, isolation and despair, yet Swiss Army Man made me giddy, in part because I couldn't wait to see what happened next to its characters, and in part because it's so willing to take bold choices with its story, its actors, even its soundtrack, that it made me happy to be watching a film by filmmakers (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively "Daniels") who are genuinely excited by their medium.

Every bit of Swiss Army Man is an impossibility, beginning with the fate of Hank, who has somehow wound up on a tiny little desert island and has grown despondent.  Hank is played by Paul Dano, whose sad, somehow innocent countenance is perfectly suited to the movie.  Just as he's about to expedite his departure from both the island and the world, he sees something on the small beach -- the lifeless body of a man.

Doing what dead bodies apparently do, the man is farting.  A lot.  And that gives Hank an idea.  In what has already become the scene that defines the movie, Hank puts the body in the water and rides it, like a Jet Ski, to a different shore.  Allegedly, the farting and the Jet Skiing and some of the other undeniably unsavory things that happen in Swiss Army Man has prompted many people to walk out of the film, disgusted -- and, indeed, when I saw the movie a man got up about 45 minutes into it and never came back.

Despite all those impossibilities, there is something real at the core of Swiss Army Man, and it's a shame that some people have such fragile sensibilities, because Swiss Army Man turns out to be a film that wants to explore some of the big, grand themes of life.  It believes that the world is a bigger place than any of us will ever know, that love matters, that life is always weird and unpredictable, and that even its disappointments can be filled with a certain beauty.

The body is played by Daniel Radcliffe, who has at last transcended Harry Potter and wizardom to become a fearless and committed actor.  Hank starts to carry the farting body with him, and just as the sinking feeling sets in that Swiss Army Man will by the "If They Mated" offspring of Castaway and Weekend at Bernie's, it becomes something totally different, as the corpse starts to talk.

No, the body, which comes to be named Manny, doesn't exactly spring to life, remaining almost entirely lifeless except for the uncanny ability to hold a conversation -- and a certain twinkle in its eye.  Manny proves to have a number of unexpected uses, hence the movie's title, but also is curious about the life he doesn't remember having had.

As Hank makes his way through the forest, looking for someone to save him, he carries Manny with him, and he tries to explain the world to the memory-challenged dead man, and they discover a seeming mystery: the identity of the woman whose photo is on Manny's iPhone.

Their trek through the forest begins in absurdity, but takes a circuitous route to some extraordinary emotional insight.  Sensitivity, revelation and a sweet empathy were the furthest things from my mind when I sat down to watch Swiss Army Man, yet the movie about a dead guy turns out to have a warm and beating heart.

Equally unexpectedly, it's also a sort-of musical, with haunting, melodious songs that are as shocking and profane as the movie itself, and equally insightful.

Yes, Swiss Army Man begins with the humor so puerile that even Adam Sandler might find it ridiculous, but that shocking behavior is merely what forces the attention.  Once that is out of the way (well, to a degree, it never is out of the way -- this is, after all, a movie in which a dead man's erection is an important plot point), Swiss Army Man displays the visual inventiveness and emotional complexity of such realistic fantasies as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show, with an underlying mysteriousness that never yields, not even in those final scenes.

Make no doubt: There's a very good chance you're temperamentally predisposed to hating Swiss Army Man, and if the idea of being challenged in the movies scares you, by all means stay away.

But if you don't hate it, then right about the time that Hank has to risk his life to rescue the already-dead Manny from drowning, you may find that you're more engrossed by its story, more invested in the fates of its characters, and more moved by their outcomes, than you've been in any mainstream film you've seen this summer, if not this year.

Viewed July 2, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, June 25, 2016

"The Shallows"

 3 / 5 

The Shallows ain't Jaws, but the good news is, it's not Jaws the Revenge, either.  It may not be fair to try to compare The Shallows with any Jaws movie, but that's what happens when you make a movie about a shark.  Sorry, them's the breaks.

So, call it Jaws Lite: It comes nowhere near the mastery, the complexity, the fullness of Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, but it's far superior to any of the sequels, even the one with the shark who seeks revenge even though it died two films ago.

The shark in The Shallows is almost as tenacious as the one that terrorized Mrs. Brody and Michael Caine, who made that movie instead of getting his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters.  It is unlikely that Blake Lively, who stars in The Shallows, will need to clear her mantle for an Oscar, though if you measure the effectiveness of a performance by how much you believe the actor really is the person on screen, then she succeeds tremendously well.

She plays a surfer named Nancy (no, I didn't realize that parents were still naming their children Nancy in the early 1990s, either), who is on vacation in Mexico when she goes surfing by herself and gets attacked by a shark.

That is the setup, but the movie adds in some Lifetime Movie-level backstory about Nancy's mother dying of cancer and the way she loved this particular secret beach that can only be accessed by driving through miles of jungle.  Nancy spends a couple of minutes on the phone with her little sister and her widowed dad, who is disappointed that Nancy has dropped out of medical school.

Nancy makes her way out into the water and meets two other surfers, who lay out some additional rules that the movie has to follow, and in short order The Shallows gets all of the exposition out of the way so the shark can start its attack.

If Steven Spielberg had been born 30 years later, this is probably the kind of movie the studio would have forced him to make.  All that stuff in Jaws about Brody's fear of water, about the mayor and the townspeople, about Hooper and little Alex Kintner and Quint could have easily been truncated by about an hour so we could get straight into the stuff with the shark.  Why make audiences wade through story, for crying out loud?

So, here's Nancy on her surfboard, and the two other dudes say, "We're going home now," and she says, "Go on ahead, I'll stay here," even though it's clearly established she doesn't have a way to get back to her hotel.  And then it happens.

And The Shallows turns into a neat and effective little thriller that draws on another creepy movie about the ocean, Open Water, in the way it becomes about someone who's completely on her own with nothing but water and a shark.

The Shallows mixes it up a bit, by adding in other elements of danger, and some nicely just-out-of-reach potential fixes to Nancy's impossible situation, along with some additional roadblocks that leave her, and us, equally frightened and exasperated by the predicament.

It's a surprisingly restrained and well-crafted movie, mostly avoiding gore -- except for a scene that revels in Nancy's improvised self-suturing to try to close her gigantic wound -- and settling in to some terrific suspense, until a final third in which it succumbs to the same affliction that dragged down the Jaws sequels: It turns stupid.

After building impressive tension, The Shallows offers up a finale that belies everything this taut, smart thriller has been.  The CG visual effects that have been so sparingly and effectively used are suddenly exploited, and just when The Shallows should be most surprising and cathartic it turns, frankly, dumb. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski can't resist an action-style ending, but it turns out they don't quite have enough in common with their shark -- they've bitten off more than they can chew.

They should have been content with the girl, the shark and the shore that's just a little too far away.

Viewed June 25, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Catching Up: "Zootopia"

 4.5 / 5 

Ambitious, optimistic, naive Judy Hopps, newest recruit of the Zootopia Police Department, has been given 48 hours to crack the city's biggest mystery, and through a complicated series of events she's about to come face-to-face with Zootopia's notorious crime boss Mr. Big.

Judy's a rabbit, her unwilling partner in criminal detection is a fox named Nick, and Mr. Big, it turns out, is a tiny little rodent, a vole who looks and sounds an awful lot like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.  In fact, he's surprised his longtime rival Nick would intrude on such a day -- his daughter's wedding day.  Yet, he sighs, business must be done.

That one of the cleverest and most effective parodies ever attempted of The Godfather should be featured in a Disney movie starring bunnies, foxes, polar bears and voles is one of the many surprises in Zootopia, which blends equal parts Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Airplane! and 48 Hrs.

Young audiences, ostensibly the target for Zootopia, will know nothing of Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy and Walter Hill, and quite likely next to nothing about Eddie Valiant and Toontown.  They'll just love the plucky bunny voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who wants to fight crime and be heroic as the first (and smallest) rabbit member of the ZPD.  Kids will get a kick out of the way animals live and co-exist in Zootopia, and the movie uses a charming backstory to cleverly establish the idea that animals have evolved so much that predators and prey have inhabited the same city peacefully for many years.

That's where Zootopia gets most interesting, because what starts out as standard-issue authority-versus-rookie tension slowly becomes a dark and disturbing undercurrent to the movie, and as it does Zootopia becomes the first Disney animated film that really deserves its PG rating -- it ventures into some impressively dark territory.

It's got a story that's as well thought-out as, say, Roger Rabbit or even, I might dare say, that movie's inspiration, Robert Towne's script to Chinatown.  It may not be quite that good -- the Disney brand-management sheen gets in the way a bit too much -- but to say that Zootopia deserves comparison to Chinatown is not nearly as ludicrous as it may seem.

You doubt me?  I would have doubted me, too, before seeing it, but consider the scene in which the unexpected real villain of the piece reveals the motives behind the story -- which involves peaceful, law-abiding citizens being intentionally turned into violent criminals in an effort to build a climate of fear and distrust.  Sure, you've always been able to trust the dark-skinned jaguar who lives down the street, he's been a pal of yours for 20 years, but do you really know who he is and what he's capable of?  Wouldn't Zootopia be a better place if the minority predator population were simply removed, and everyone else could go back to living in harmony?

Even in a non-election year, that would be some pretty deep stuff for audiences of any age, but in the Year of the Donald, in the Year of the Muslim Terrorist, it takes on even greater resonance.  (And its ultimate happy-ending finding turns out not only to be one kids can get behind, but to be not all that far-fetched, really.)

Zootopia turns out to be about race relations, about minority rights, about racial and ethnic profiling, and about civil rights.  So, be thankful for one really important fact: It's funny.

It's charming, it's downright hilarious at some points (like in Mr. Big's scene), and it constantly engages the eye, the heart and the funny bone with its lightning-fast tours through the massive city of Zootopia, where virtually every street sign, shop sign, billboard and brand name hides a double meaning.  You could watch Zootopia for hours and hours simply to catch all of the jokes.

Then there are the endless references to other movies and TV shows -- from The Hunger Games to Frozen (multiple times), from the first Mission: Impossible to Lethal Weapon to Lost.  The latter is my favorite, using one of Zootopia composer Michael Giacchino's most unmistakable musical motifs in the middle of an action scene.

Zootopia is the rare movie that will satisfy everyone for the simple reason that it was designed by storytellers and pop-culture lovers who wanted to satisfy themselves, first.  There had to be immense glee every time someone brought forth an idea like Officer Hopps mobile phone, which has a logo of a carrot on it (with a bite taken out of it, of course) and notifies Judy that her mom and dad are requesting to "Muzzle Time" with her.  There's the scene in which sly fox Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman) sells popsicles to lemmings, who of course line up to do what the other ones are doing.

Zootopia is a movie to be savored -- it took me a little over two hours to watch its 1 hr. 48 min. running time because I kept pausing the image and looking around at the environments. (In one part of town, rodents shop Mousey's and Targoat.)  But I also found myself unexpectedly intrigued in the central mystery.  Crime mysteries are a rarity in movies, and Zootopia has created one that is genuinely compelling, with a solution that not only isn't easy to suss out, but that also involves a hilarious and lengthy reference to Breaking Bad.

Yes, Disney's latest animated feature for kids has, as one of its central plot points, the purification of plants into potent drugs by a criminal element (including two rams named, you guessed it, Walter and Jesse).

Zootopia is not afraid to go where the jokes take it.  Or the story.  While the timeliness of some of those jokes may make the shelf life of Zootopia considerably shorter than, say, Cinderella or The Lion King, its super-current pop-culture references at least ring true for now, and they are funny.  As a whole, the film itself rings just as true and is just as funny, which makes it a complete and utter surprise, a charming animated movie for kids that may work even better as an engrossing mystery for adults about kidnapping, racial tension, genetic experimentation, the link between the drug trade and government and -- well, let's just stop there before you get the wrong idea again.

Zootopia works quite well -- better than it should -- as a crime drama.  But you've come for the fluffy bunnies, the talking foxes, the sweetly scratchy-voiced sheep, the hilariously time-challenged sloths, and the inventive visual design.  Zootopia doesn't disappoint in any of that ... or in everything else it offers.  It's an intriguing evolution in the form and style of animated films, a step forward for Disney into a more robust, more relevant sort of animation than maybe has ever been tried in the company's history.  Zootopia is the extraordinarily rare Disney movie that tries to be different and better than any of its predecessors, and for that you can, at the very, very least -- and with a high degree of certainty, say: It would have made Walt happy.

Viewed June 18, 2016 -- VOD