Friday, August 19, 2016

"Hell or High Water"

 3.5 / 5 

Hell or High Water is as cautious and methodical as two of its three leading characters, and occasionally as violent and unpredictable as its third -- two of whom are bank robbers, and one of whom is the aged, weary Texas Ranger on their trail.

This is a movie that expects and rewards patience.  Though marketers want you to know it is from the writer of Sicario, Hell or High Water is, at every turn, languid when the other film is anxious, calm when the other film is fearful.  Sicario is a relentless movie that grips you tight and pulls you along from even before its very first frame, but Hell or High Water is more like Bridges' character; he really doesn't care what you think or if you're interested.

But he and the film are both fascinating, in large part because of their languid styles.  They are weary of yet in love with the nondescript but sharp edges of West Texas, where even cowboys can't understand why they bother to do their jobs anymore.  Time has passed by these parts, which leaves its older residents hollow and resigned, while the younger folks are aware of how much they've been cheated by their circumstances.

One of them, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), has been cheated more than most.  Divorced, broke, unable to afford his child support payments, the iniquities don't end: His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) shot and killed their mother's husband, for which he was sent to prison.  Now he's out, and the mother has died, leaving their desolate ranch to Toby, who's in turn determined to make sure it goes to his children -- not just to give them somewhere to live, but because an oil deposit has been discovered on the ranch, one that stands to make everyone rich.

The problem: The bank intends to get the ranch.  Toby needs to make sure he gets it first, but cash is non-existent.  The solution: He and his just-sprung brother will rob some banks.  He's thought it all out, and no one will get hurt.  They'll pull just enough robberies to get the money they need; in effect, the bank will pay what he owes.

From its very first shot Hell or High Water makes it clear: The hard-working people of Texas -- of the country, for that matter -- aren't the ones who are guilty for their condition.  Toby and Tanner are Robin Hood-style heroes, not robbing the banks but taking back what should be theirs with a ruthlessness not far off from the bankers themselves when they repossess a home.

But there is the matter of the law.  Guns are carried but never used in the robberies.  Low amounts of cash are taken.  The FBI has no interest in the rash of robberies, but they intrigue Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), whose Mexican and Native American roots are a source of endless amusement for the soon-to-retire Hamilton.

Hell or High Water takes its time setting up the conflict, but its close observations of desperate lives make it endlessly compelling to watch, and the movie builds tension well -- though releases it much earlier than a less assured film might.

Toby and Tanner continue their crime spree even as Hamilton and Parker close in on them, leading to a couple of scenes of brief but nonetheless shocking violence, which in Hell or High Water is never treated with glamour or excitement; it's depressing and unnecessary, and if the movie takes a certain gleeful attitude toward guns when they're not being used, it hates the consequences of pulling the trigger and takes no joy in the outcomes.

With uniformly strong performances by all four of the central characters, especially Foster as the unhinged Tanner, Hell or High Water is a bleak and sad Western-twinged movie, a film that takes a steel-eyed but disappointed view of an American landscape that once inspired epics and now can barely muster the enthusiasm of an old dog.

It's a film that longs for a better time -- whose title is uttered in a scene inside an attorney's office, where the photos of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson hang on the walls, one of the men made by Texas, the other destroyed by it, both of them Democrats, both of them relics of a long-ago time when hard work and dedication paid off.

But we've gotten to a point where the only thing that pays off anymore is stealing from other people, but subtly and professionally, like the financial institutions do it. As one of the old-timers observes, the days of stealing the old-fashioned way, of robbing banks and getting away with it, are long past.  If such a desperate act is the only way left to get ahead, where do we go from here?

Viewed Aug. 18, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Monday, August 15, 2016

"Sausage Party"

 2.5 / 5 

Why should it be any stranger or less appropriate to laugh at the sexual proclivities of food than it is to, say, sigh over the empty love life of a volcano or hope that two futuristic robots will end up together?

What it all comes (ahem) down to is whether the characters legitimately earn our respect and sympathy, and that, let me tell you about Sausage Party, depends on how much respect and sympathy you have for anyone or anything that consistently confuses profanity for wit.

It's not any more or less shocking or any more (or less) funny to hear the F-bomb hundreds of times within the first few minutes of Sausage Party than it would be in any other film, and the fact that it's being uttered by hot dogs, hot dog buns, jars of mustard and bottles of ketchup do not excuse the failure of Sausage Party to find any way to earn our attention than to pummel us over the head with its manufactured inappropriateness.

Bear in mind, it's been 25 years since we found it charming for a young girl to have a gentle sexual awakening in the arms of a towering, hairy beast.  Animation has a particular way of making anything seem possible, and Sausage Party is hardly the first time that has extended to talking foodstuff.  (In fact, the last time I saw this gag, the food was espousing Christian ethics in Veggie Tales.)

So, Sausage Party knows it had better do something and pretty fast, because even a song with music by Alan Menken can't save its first few minutes.  It comes as a relief, then, that Sausage Party continues to get better and better the more patience you have.

Set primarily in a grocery store, Sausage Party proceeds, like Toy Story before it, to imagine that inanimate objects have a secret life humans know nothing about.  In this case, the food believes that the "gods" who wander the aisles of the store pushing shopping carts "choose" the food to take to "the great beyond," where they will be treated to a food version of heaven.

When a jar of honey mustard (yes, it's fun and funny even to write this) is returned to the shelves, he comes bearing horrific news: He has seen what actually happens, and it's terrifying.  The movie's best and most creative, amusing sequence happens as he tries to warn the others and ends up in a scene that is like a grocery-store version of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan.  Watch for the Oreo: He's worth the price of admission.

The movie's main characters are a hot dog, Frank (Seth Rogen), and a hot dog bun, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), who desperately want to have sex with each other.  There are as many hot-dog-in-a-bun sex jokes as you could possibly imagine in Sausage Party, and then there are about three dozen more.

Whether to believe the jar of honey mustard or whether to just get on with their lives is at the artichoke heart of the movie, and Sausage Party turns into an odd quest film, interspersed with the adventures of a tiny, misshapen hot dog (Michael Cera) who sees more than he wants to of the outside world.  In the second-best scene in the movie, the little wiener witnesses the unique horrors of potatoes being peeled, baby carrots being eaten and a fellow hot dog being sliced right in front of his eyes.

Sausage Party is at its best when it uses animation to find humor in violent tropes; we live in astonishingly violent times and have become so used to terrifying images on movie screens that it's both funny and shocking to see horrific acts through the eyes of an innocent -- without anything truly graphic.  The ability of animation to simultaneously heighten and mute the impact of violence is one surprising discovery of Sasuage Party.

The rest is not nearly as clever.  There are funny scenes and moments, to be sure, and Sausage Party aims to be one of those equal-opportunity-offender comedies, painting Jews, Christians, gays, blacks, Mexicans and low-income whites with the kind of stereotypes that no live-action film has gotten away with since Mel Brooks' golden years.

There are high points, like Edward Norton's surprisingly good imitation of a young Woody Allen, and in the end the titular party finally takes place, finding no end of creative inspiration in the ways that food might have sex with each other.  There is straight sex, gay sex, S&M sex, fetish sex, you name it.  If this is what you envisioned for Sausage Party, and it probably was, then the movie finally delivers.

But it comes at a price.  There are some depressingly played-for-laughs scenes of drug use so graphic and unnecessary that the only logical explanation for this film not receiving an NC-17 rating is that the ratings board was high when they saw it.  The drug use is not innocent; I can give a movie a pass when its characters get really, really stoned, but when one of them shoots up deadly bath salts and the movie plays it for laughs, Sausage Party crosses a line.  I fully expected the movie to follow this up with a moment of pedophilia.

Keep in mind, this movie springs largely from the same minds who came up with the monumentally unfunny political chit called The Interview, and its a relief that Sausage Party is funnier and infinitely more clever than that film.  But it's still not quite clever enough; it laughs too often at its own jokes, a habit I hoped Rogen would have dispensed with by now.

There's probably an age correlation to the enjoyment of the film, though; that's something I fully admit. ,The 19-year-old kids in the audience thought cussing, sexually obsessed hot dogs were hilarious, much in the same way, probably, that they still find flipping off the camera to be funny.

Neither they, nor the old-enough-to-know-better filmmakers, have yet learned the concept of artistic irony; everything is played here pretty much at face value, and the movie never goes so far as to send up the bedrocks of CG animation as try to mimic what make the Pixar movies work -- then thumb their noses jealousy at the success, even adding in a visual gag of a bumper sticker with the word "Dixar," written in Pixar font.  If you can't rise to the level of your talented colleagues, call them dicks.  That usually works.

That's the weird problem with Sausage Party -- it's not a bad movie, it certainly isn't unfunny, and it almost makes it on its own.  But it's got a potato chip on its shoulder, and is imbued with a disturbing sort of jealousy, the kind that makes the C-grade kids shout unkind names at the A-grade kids.  Those C-level students could be A-level students, too, if they just trusted their imaginations a little more.

Yeah, the whole thing has a lot of comparisons to being back in school, and as far as that goes, Sausage Party isn't in the same class as the cool kids of, say, "Robot Chicken," which has studied how to combine adult humor and animation; it's mostly stuck in seventh-grade, drawing pictures of penises on book covers and getting hauled to the principal's office.  The thing is, the penises it draws are pretty funny.

Viewed Aug. 15, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Bad Moms"

 3 / 5 

First things first: Bad Moms is funny.  Sometimes, it's very funny, and sometimes just mildly amusing, but even when it veers into maudlin, sentimental territory, Bad Moms knows that its first job is to make us laugh, and it does that job well.

Its cast is all very good, with Mila Kunis offering a stark reminder, after the missteps of Oz: The Great and Powerful and Jupiter Ascending, that she got her start in comedy; Kathryn Hahn delivering the funniest performance of the year; and Kristen Bell proving that playing the sidekick has its advantages.

But then there's this odd undercurrent.  This is a movie written and directed by men, and even though it boasts a phenomenal cast of fearless women in all of the leading roles, there's something odd about its underlying message.

Bad Moms posits that women can only be truly free when they are wild, boozy and slutty, that a woman who enjoys being a mom is lying to herself, and that the ones who try to "have it all" (meaning they work outside the home) are setting themselves up for disaster.

Women are at their best, Bad Moms at least sort of thinks, when they go to movies in the afternoon, have extra liquor during long brunches, and wander aimlessly around luxury stores, dreaming of a life they hope they'll have one day.

Kunis kicks things off with a voiceover narration that is used as voiceover narrations so frequently are: as a crutch to give us a quick introduction to the main character, whose disembodied voice will not be heard again.  In this five-minutes-and-we're-done lead-in, we learn that Kunis's Chicago-suburbs mom Amy married at 20, had three kids and feels her life has become too harried, too hectic, too impossible to juggle.  She works at a hipster-trendy coffee company where, at 32, she's the senior citizen among her co-workers, which include her completely oblivious boss (Clark Duke).

Her two kids seem to despise her, which is what young teenagers are supposed to do, after all, and their school is controlled by the Mean Moms of the bunch, the PTA president (Christina Applegate) and her two hangers-on (Jada Pinkett-Smith and Annie Mumolo, both horribly underused).  Indeed, there are long stretches where Bad Moms appears to be the continuing story of the Mean Girls after they finished high school, got married and grew up.

After a particularly disastrous day made no better by discovering her husband masturbating to live-chat porn, Amy pulls herself together just enough to attend one of the school's endless PTA meetings, where she has a mini-meltdown and leaves to spend some time at a local bar, which seems to be placed unusually close to a school.

In the bar, she meets two moms she has never spoken to before, the blowsy broad Carla (Hahn) and the demure Kiki (Bell).  They become fast friends, because amid the many extras who fill the scenes of PTA meetings, there appear to be only two kinds of moms: "Good" ones who will sacrifice anything to help their child get ahead, and "bad" ones, who just sort of sit on the sidelines and leave their kids' baseball games after an hour.

Carla is a bad mom, and she knows it.  Kiki just wants to be whatever kind of mom is going to win her some much-needed friends who can take her away from her disturbingly controlling husband.  Amy's right down the middle.  She's been too good for too long ... now she wants to be bad.

The trio visit the grocery store and mix their own drinks right there in the aisles. They eat cereal from the boxes and they perform acts of minor vandalism and act like untamed animals because they're letting their hair down.  It's positioned as the comic highlight of the movie, but is one of the film's biggest breaks from reality and least successful moments.

After this attempt to be The Hangover with women (only logical, since the movie was written by the writers of The Hangover), they start recovering their wits and realizing that they want a combination of less-stressed lives with more recognition.  They want, in a nutshell, to be seen as people -- so, using the same methods as their most unruly toddlers, they decide they have to act out to do it.

They visit a downtown bar and practice their slut-moves.  They talk with each other about graphic sexual encounters. They throw a party for all the other moms to get them drunk and high and having such a great time they'll elect Amy the next PTA president.  Martha Stewart even gets into the act, showing up in the movie just long enough to reveal that she starts her day off with six lingonberry extract Jell-O vodka shots.

And it is undeniably funny, made funnier by the way its trio of lead actresses commit themselves to their performances and to their characters.  If there's one thing Bad Moms excels at, it's creating distinctive characters for its performers; the superhero movies could learn something from this.

But, wait.  Look closer.

Does the movie suggests that the best way for a woman to let loose is to start her day with liquor?  Or that her true personality shines through when she ditches the kinds of dresses "that Mrs. Doubtfire would wear"?  There's an uncomfortable double-standard going on here, especially when one of the movie's Bad Moms compliments the one "hot dad" for the way he dresses casually.

Yeah, could be I'm just too sensitive, but these undercurrents bothered me in Bad Moms, much the same way that they bothered me about the shrewd, funny Trainwreck, another movie that suggests that the best way a woman can express herself is to show off her sexual side and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol.

For a while I didn't think the movie was going to recover.  Amid its laughs, it was saying that there are only helicopter moms and drunkard moms, and if you weren't one or the other, you had to become one or the other, and that the best, true path to salvation was for the helicopter mom to become a sloppy drunk.

I don't believe that, and I don't think Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell believe that, so I was confused about why they would agree to be in this movie.  It is, on one level, a harmless comedy, but it also works hard to weave in a deeper level, one in which it wants to say something about the intrinsic worth and self-sufficiency of women who choose to work and have a family.  (It says absolutely nothing about family men who choose to work; after all, they're doing what they're supposed to do.)

Despite those reservations, though, and they're big ones, Bad Moms is so full of good cheer, anchored by Kunis, Kuhn, Bell and, unexpectedly, Applegate's single-mindedly bitter PTA president. Applegate is clearly having a great time playing a flat-out villain, and she brings such a broad, cartoony fun to the role that it's easy to see how much inspiration Bad Moms takes from Mean Girls, which is not a slight toward either film.  There are times in Bad Moms that made me think that this is how Regina George and her posse would have turned out.

Bad Moms does finally set much of its wobbly record straight -- that these women were letting off steam and were never really endangering their families.  And it expands the definition of the title from moms behaving badly to those moms who just need help figuring it out, who imagine themselves as bad but aren't.

It's a funny, flawed movie, one that's finally fulfilling -- and legitimately earns the goodwill it generates from its audience, cheerily asking them to stick around for one of the best end-credits sequences yet, in which the actresses and their moms recall childhood.  It's got one of the movie's funniest lines, involving Al Pacino and his notorious 1980 movie Cruising.  That's the kind of bad-momming that's really memorable.

Viewed Aug. 6, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Jason Bourne"

 1.5 / 5 

The unrelentingly, oppressively stupid Jason Bourne is, I fear, the spy thriller our times deserve.  It's a movie that doesn't just ask audiences to suspend disbelief, it is defiantly unconcerned with, even dismissive of, those of us who can't.  I've rarely had such a visceral, angry reaction to a film and the disdain its creators seem to have for the audience.

Here's one example of why I object so strongly to Jason Bourne:

Toward the beginning of the movie, Bourne (played again by Matt Damon, a very good actor who is nearly wordless in this film) is in Athens, where he meets former CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles).  She has devoted her life to undermining the CIA, and is going to release classified documents about its bad-guy programs to the Internet.

The set-up is pretty good.  The idea that Jason Bourne might dig into some Snowden-style intrigue is promising.  But, other than name-checking Snowden more than a few times, this turns out to be a movie with absolutely nothing on its mind.

So, there are Jason and Nicky, arranging a clandestine Athenian meeting.  You've seen enough spy movies to know the kind of place the would meet: a dark, shadowy sort of alley, as far away from people as they could get.  But, no, they do not choose such a place.  They choose to meet at a large public square, just as an anti-government demonstration is taking place, where they can be sure to be surrounded by police and surveillance cameras.

Those surveillance cameras are all, rather miraculously, under the direct control of the U.S. CIA.  At Langley, gruff, hangdog CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his eager, ultra-serious head of cyber-intelligence Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) bark orders at the bank of computer operators.  I paraphrase here, but the dialogue runs along the lines of: "Call up camera 247 ... show the image on screen ... enlarge! ... there he is -- plot his course!"  If nothing else, Vikander proves she would be an impressive commander aboard the Enterprise.

No matter where Jason and Nicky go, a camera can see them.  Since these are people who have studied the methods of the CIA, you'd imagine that even if they realized, "Hey, our great meeting location is kind of busy," they might try to sneak away into the quiet alley they should have chosen in the first place.

Instead, Jason Bourne steals a police motorcycle, which is rarely a good way to ensure that the police don't follow you.  He creates the biggest ruckus possible as he speeds through Athens with Nicky sitting behind him.

Now, all of this stupidity could be forgiven -- after all, James Bond is never exactly low-key about his actions -- if the movie were a sight to behold, but it is not.  Director Paul Greengrass's style hasn't changed one bit in the 14 years since the first Bourne movie: It's all shaky-cam all the time, a style that thankfully had been on the wane but now threatens to make a nauseating, confusing comeback.  There's little way of knowing exactly what is going on at any time in Jason Bourne, because the camera never stays still long enough to help us understand where we are in space or where characters are in relation to one other.

After Athens, Jason Bourne momentarily heads into potentially interesting territory again when it introduces Riz Ahmed as the young entrepreneur of a social media company who, it turns out, accepted a whole lot of money from the CIA to build his business, but now doesn't want to build a back door for them to spy on the billions of people who use the service.

Does a social media company have a responsibility to help the government monitor traffic for activity that could put the world at risk?  It's a fascinating question, but Jason Bourne sidesteps it completely. It's just a momentary plot point as the movie hurtles along.

At times, the CIA uses a battery of high-tech equipment and ubiquitous security cameras (all of which always work perfectly and are hooked up to remarkably stable Internet connections) to track the every move of its characters.  At other times, they can't find Jason Bourne in the middle of Las Vegas.

These few examples barely begin to explain just how stupid Jason Bourne is, but it's offensively violent, too.  In the climax of the film, a bad guy steals a SWAT van (and you know how easy those would be to steal, especially at the scene of an active crime) and drives it down the Las Vegas Strip, plowing through literally hundreds of vehicles, which go soaring through the air.

Now, the Bourne films generally try to convince us that they exist in a certain version of our own reality, so consider what might happen if a SWAT van started plowing through Las Vegas and killing hundreds of innocent bystanders.  What might that actually look like?  What terrifying scenes of carnage might it elicit?  How many news helicopters would be flying through the air to track every single move?

Not in Jason Bourne.  In this movie, it's played for fun, and as the CIA look on with sudden helplessness, Jason Bourne and the bad guy, a guy I recognized from one of the previous movies, but whose identity is really irrelevant, leave a trail of destruction across Las Vegas, they wind up in a sewer tunnel where no one seems able to find them.  They get into a fistfight.  I won't keep you in suspense: Bourne wins.  And then he walks away.

He literally walks away, into the night, as if he's some mysterious entity.  The same guy that hundreds of people are tracking, the guy who can be found on any street in Athens, walks away.

And then, adding insult to all of the injury, Bourne willingly shows up in Washington D.C.  In the middle of a public park, he appears seemingly out of nowhere, taps Vikander's CIA analyst on the shoulder, and tells her not to look for him anymore.  "How can I find you?" she asks him in a hushed, dramatic tone.

Are you freaking kidding me?

Come on.  How can you find him?  It wasn't that hard in Athens, was it?  You had him trapped in a sewer in Vegas and you didn't bother to take him in.

Amid all of this, for just a moment, Jason Bourne hints at its simplistic political views, which are basically that the government cannot be trusted, that only billionaires who lead private industry want to protect the public, and that the privacy of Internet users is more important than global security.

Whether or not I agree with those political views, Jason Bourne is very much of the times.  It is a lazy movie.  It is a carelessly sloppy movie.  It has not thought things through.  It plows ahead because it can, and it values the experience more than the message.  As far as spy movies go, it could only have been made now, in these overwhelmingly weird times.  Make of that what you will.

Viewed July 31, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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