Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah

Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
2014. Rated PG-13, 138 minutes.
Cast:
Douglas Booth
Mark Margolis
Leo McHugh Carroll

Even if you're not religious, you're probably familiar with the story of Noah's Ark. The Good Lord was so fed up with mankind that he sent a great flood to wipe us all out. Before He did, though, He let Noah in on the plan and told him to build a great ark and all the animals, two by two, will join him and his family. That way, when the waters recede all of the various species can continue. Noah did precisely this and the world was repopulated entirely by the occupants of the most famous boat of all time. With Russell Crowe in the titular role, Noah fleshes out this saga in more detail than has ever been attempted.

Noah is presented to us as a simple man. He is wholly devoted to The Creator first, his family second, and has the courage of his convictions on all fronts. Crowe plays him as a man with a quiet, yet unwavering, authority. It is also unquestioned within his own family. When he says 'we're building an ark and all the animals are coming,' his wife Naameh (Connelly) doesn't even blink. It's evident that she is as committed as he to carrying out The Creator's wishes. If either of them, or anyone in the movie for that matter, isn't quite sure what He is saying to them, or what should be done next, they go pay a visit to Noah's cave-dwelling grandfather Methusaleh. All is then made clear and we drive on. Also involved are Noah's sons Shem (Booth), Ham (Lerman), and Jahpeth (Carroll). This makes for some pretty interesting family dynamics when things don't seem to be going quite as planned, or at least to everyone's liking. This provides the movie with its biggest dilemma and a controversial outcome. It opens the door for the interpretation that Noah was ultimately a failure in God's eyes. Noah himself seems to feel this way. It goes against the prevailing idea that he was an unmitigated success. Well, unless I missed something. That's entirely possible given I'm not a religious guy. If so, feel free to let me know.

Then again, letting me know what I missed isn't really necessary because this movie really only uses the biblical story of Noah as an outline for the rest of the movie. Basically, that he built an ark, all the animals came, and The Creator flooded the world destroying all life outside of that ark is all that's taken from scripture. However, this isn't a complaint. I fully understand why so much was added to the story. It would have been really boring watching Noah and his family chop down trees, swing hammers, and sing spirituals while they work for a hundred years to get it done. Likewise, it would not have been exciting watching them sail along for forty days and forty nights unless the animals started getting unruly. By the way, the movie very neatly skirts this possibility. Things were needed to give us human conflicts the viewer could relate to. To that end, we get the family drama, including a very tough situation that weighs heavily on the movie's final act. We also get a villain in the form of Tubal-cain (Winstone). He believes Noah really has been told by God to build the ark and that a great flood is coming. Well, Tubal-cain has an army and he wants on that boat! These things work pretty well to create tension where the source material has none. There is also an additional layer of mysticism applied to a tale that already starts with a supernatural conversation. This comes in the form of "The Watchers," fallen angels made of light but encased in rock ages ago when they betrayed The Creator by helping mankind. They seem to have leapt from Peter Jackson's imagination as possible Middle Earth inhabitants. Their presence gives our heroes some much-needed allies and they really spring to life during movie's largest battle scene.


On the technical side, director Darren Aronofsky has created a visually pleasing film. There are lots of wide shots of our heroes either traversing lush landscapes or hard at work on the ark. These and the depiction of the battles again bring Peter Jackson to mind. In battle, The Watchers take on humans in spectacular fashion. Bodies and rocks fly about the screen as swords, axes, and all sorts of ancient weaponry is put to use. By the time we get quite that far, however, we have already seen the most amazing shot of the movie: a forest instantly springing up around Noah and family from a singular seed. Another wonderful sequence has our hero audibly recite the story of Creation, but visually melds it with The Big Bang Theory and evolution. During our scenes aboard the famed vessel, we get lots of shots of people coming out of and going into the shadows symbolizing the less than altruistic intentions of several characters. We are also shown more close ups mimicking the claustrophobic nature of their situation. It's a clear case of the director and his cinematographer using the camera to influence the viewer.

Like lots of films, how much we enjoy Noah might depend on the expectations we bring to it. If you are a devout Christian and/or looking for something that sticks closely to the story you know and love, you may be sorely disappointed. I venture to say so many liberties are taken wish the source material it's possible you'll be offended. Of course, there's that whole bit about just what happened at the beginning of time. If you go into it dreading having to sit through a religious flick, you might just roll your eyes all the way through. Fallen angels and God delivering ultimatums in a voice only heard by one person is not going to change your mind. However, if you enter without clinging to your thoughts on what it should be, you will be pleasantly surprised. The story is told well and a good deal of tension is created. It also looks very good, as mentioned. It can drag a bit in spots, but things perk up whenever Ray Winstone or Anthony Hopkins is on the screen. It's a decent watch, but won't inspire you to start building an ark anytime soon.


MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Captain America Blogathon



Andy over at Fandango Groovers Movie Blog had a great idea for a blogathon. He was inspired by the upcoming movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Unless you yourself have suffered a similar fate, you're likely aware that Cap was actually frozen for nearly 70 years. Andy wondered aloud to his fellow bloggers what ten movies would we recommend for him to watch. The only rule is that the movie must have been released during the time he was cooling his heels, from 1943 to 2011. I can handle that.

Aside from saving our tails, he has some catching up to do with the rest of society. After all, the country as he knew it is entirely different from the one he woke up to. Think about it. In 1943, America was basically an apartheid. When Cap was thawed out, he immediately went to work for a black man. And that's only one difference. With that in mind, I didn't want to just offer up 10 classic films and/or pull one from every decade. As enjoyable as that might have been I didn't think it was the most beneficial to a man in his particular situation. I picked 10 films that I think will help him best understand what his beloved country has become and where we might be going. In no particular order, here they are:

United 93
(2006)
Since September 12, 2001 we've been living in a post 9/11 world. That only makes sense since this is the single biggest tragedy on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Any understanding of America as it is currently constituted must include this fateful event. This examination presents the story of the one plane that did not hit its target. Honestly, I've never even watched this movie myself. When it came out, I avoided it as being too soon and have never bothered with this or a number of other films on the subject. However, for a person with no (or extremely limited) knowledge of 9/11, I figured he may as well start with the movie plenty of people say is the best and most honest of the bunch.


Eyes on the Prize
(1987)
In the opening, I alluded to the drastic change in race relations. No, things aren't perfect. Not even close. However, there have been major improvements during the time Cap was away. In looking for a "regular" movie to help him understand what went on, I found that most covered a singular aspect or event pretty well. The problem is almost all of them depend on at least a working knowledge of what went on during the early and middle twentieth century. Eyes on the Prize probably isn't something he can watch in one sitting. It's a six-hour PBS documentary that has been hailed as the most comprehensive examination of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. It spans the years 1952 through 1965 and details the growing pains of a nation.


Woodstock
(1970)
The 1960s is known as our most turbulent decade. Eyes on the Prize details one side of things. In reality, the Civil Rights Movement was a symptom of our changing ideals. Along with those ideals, our attitudes and our music changed to such a degree that they simultaneously reflected and informed everything about us. It all culminated in three days of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll in upstate New York. This documentary captures the spirit of the youth that were changing the world...at least the ones not permanently stuck in a foggy haze.


Young Frankenstein
(1974)
Everything doesn't have to be dreadfully serious and "educational." This Mel Brooks classic is neither, yet it still teaches us about ourselves. Though it's forty years old, it still exemplifies our collective personality. We're a bunch of self-aware, snarky, sarcastic smart-asses using the past for both inspiration and target practice. Quentin Tarantino's entire career is built on precisely this. Instead of going with one of QT's flicks, I chose this since it skewers something Cap is familiar with and is just damn funny!


Norma Rae
(1979)
The role of women and labor laws in general have greatly improved since the 1940s. Why not a movie that captures both? Sally Field's Norma led the unionization of the factory where she worked. True, everyone isn't in love with the idea of unions, but it's hard not to be swept up in the story of a woman fighting for her basic rights and those of her fellow co-workers.


Milk
(2008)
Here, we have the story of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected official. At its core, it is another movie about a person standing up for what they believe in. However, what's on the surface might be the toughest thing for Cap to wrap his head around. Remember, he's a man of the 1940s. Its highly likely he's never met a person he knew to be gay and saw the public shunning of anyone rumored to be. Sexuality, and the right to not be persecuted for it, are at the forefront of Civil Rights issues in this country. So before diving into an episode of Glee, he should start here.


Jaws
(1975)
America loves its horror movies and its summer blockbusters. With Jaws, we get a classic of the former and the genesis of the latter. Its a movie that tapped into a very basic fear to create mass paranoia. Not that Captain America would ever be scared, but maybe he could relate to the feeling of helplessness in the face of nature engendered by this movie. As a bonus, he'll be introduced to Steven Spielberg the same way most of us were. Whatever you're personal opinion of the man doesn't change the fact that he's made some of the nation's most beloved films of all-time.


The Social Network
(2010)
Something Cap had to notice was that there are computers everywhere. It smacked him in the face when he boarded SHIELD's flying command center in The Avengers. The truth is this is probably fairly close to what he thought he early 21st century. What he was probably less prepared for was all the mobile computers people were walking around with: smart phones, tablets, etc. Even more unfathomable was probably all the completely inane things we're doing with them. We live in an age where people act upon the need to tell a thousand of their closest friends whom they've never met that they're taking a dump. Information, no matter how useful is constantly disseminated. This is also the age of billionaires who became such by electronically shrinking the gap between you and your fellow man even as it physically widens he same gap. What better movie to demonstrate this than the story of Facebook?


Sugar
(2008)
I thought about going with a football movie, here. After all, it is by far the most popular sport in the country. However, went Cap went under baseball held that spot. Therefore it's a reasonable assumption to say he's more of a baseball guy. I imagine most of you have no problem with that logic. On the other hand, you're probably wondering why not Major League? Bull Durham? Field of Dreams? Any of the other classic baseball flicks? The answer is I'm trying to dig a little deeper. This movie doesn't merely romanticize the sport or deliver a ton of laughs. Sugar chronicles the journey of a young man from his native Dominican Republic to the heartland of America on his quest to make it to the big leagues. Obviously we touch upon Latino immigration, though as a fish out of water tale, not from a political standpoint. We get a hint at how prevalent Hispanic players are in baseball, these days. Finally, we also deal with the less glamorous side of sports where most athletes exist.


Colors
(1988)
Unfortunately, gangs are also a prominent part of our landscape. Their presence is evident in urban murder rates all across the land. They have been with us for over a century in some form or another. However, the current makeup of gang culture as largely a two party system with lots of tiny affiliates had its start in Los Angeles in the 70s. Their activities escalated with the onset of the crack era and spread across the country in an easterly fashion. Colors gets Cap in on ((virtually) the ground floor and exposes him to a troubling facet of inner-city life.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

Directed by Jeff Wadlow.
2013. Rated R, 103 minutes.
Cast:
Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Donald Faison
Lindy Booth
Olga Kurkulina
Augustus Prew

After his exploits in the first movie, David Lizewski (Taylor-Johnson) is no longer fighting crime as his alter-ego Kick-Ass. These days, he's just trying to lead a normal life. Meanwhile, Mindy Macready (Moretz), or Hit Girl, is vigorously training for her return to action. Finding normal life a bore, David relents and starts working out with Hit Girl and the two decide to form a team. She's got issues of her own, though. Emotionally, she is torn between honoring her father's dying wish for her to continue his life's work as a superhero and her guardian, Det. Marcus Williams' warnings about the inappropriateness, illegality, and pure danger of that lifestyle. She opts out of the crime-fighting business. Still, David is in luck. Through some rigorous internet searching he hooks up with a group of superheroes calling themselves Justice Forever, headed by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Carrey). Of course, things aren't all hunky-dory. The main issue is that Chris D'Amico (Mintz-Plasse), aka Red Mist from the first movie is really pissed about how things turned out in that initial flick. With lots of money at his disposal, he recreates himself as a super-villain and starts putting together his own team for the sole purpose of killing Kick-Ass.

Hit Girl's personal conflict takes up as much of the spotlight as Kick-Ass, if not more. It's just as well since Chloe Grace Moretz is clearly a better actor than Aaron Taylor-Johnson. In an ultra-violent superhero flick built upon trying to apply comic sensibilities to our world, she brings real depth and weight to her character. It's a character given more room to breath as she isn't boxed into reacting to Nicolas Cage this time around. To really sell it, though, she has to convincingly handle the physical aspects of her role. She does so very well. I'd argue hers is the most physically demanding role in the movie and she pulls it off without a hitch.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is another highlight as our bad guy. Understandably, some viewers may be annoyed by him, but I think that's what the movie is going for. He's a class A Jerk, a privileged brat, remorselessly evil, and at least a little racist. The gallery of criminals he hires is a fun collection of baddies he identifies by stereotyping their ethnicity. The most prominent of these people is Mother Russia (Kurkulina). In my review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 I noted there is a character who looks like Drago from Rocky IV with boobs. Mother Russia is the live action embodiment of that. Combine this with her flat out ruthlessness and she might be the scariest woman you've ever seen.


Like it's predecessor, Kick-Ass 2 is a sharp spoof of superhero culture, both on the page and the screen. Lots of the dialogue is simplistic, slogan filled, and declaritive. It sounds like it, but it is not lazy writing. In fact, I'd say it's the exact opposite because it's going out of its way to sound that way. It's the way comic book characters often speak. Going back to our bad guy, he does this and laces every tirade with profanity. That demonstrates how much of a spoiled brat he is and that he's part of a reality closer to our own than The Avengers. As far as his use of stereotypes, it is jab at the way non-Anglo characters have been portrayed since the inception of comic books. Look back at the history of non-traditional (read: not white) characters in not just comics, but pop culture at large, and you'll see lots of stereotyping. John Leguizamo, as Chris' driver/helper/friend calls him on it. To this he responds with a line calling them archetypes which perfectly echoes the excuses used for how these people are portrayed.

Alongside broader topics such as those, KA2 narrows its focus a bit and targets the superhero team. The Watchmen seems to be the biggest target. This is ironic because that movie, and the graphic novel it's based on, essentially tries to do the same thing as KA2, bring superheroes nearer to our reality. The Watchmen just goes about the task in a somberly and as an intense examination of this world. KA2 flips things around to focus more on the superhero world and does it in a comedic manner.

I know. I know. I've seen the scores on rottentomatoes.com and metacritic.com. The people who get paid to have an opinion on this sort of thing hate this movie. Many of my fellow hobbyists who just blog about movies are in agreement with the pros. I just can't follow the flock on this one. Is it as good as the original? No. Personally, I'm on record grading it as a classic so there is almost no way this could reach that lofty status. However, I still find it to be highly entertaining and way smarter than it has been given credit for being. Like Nicolas Cage in the first movie, Chloe Grace Moretz hits it out of the park with what is already a massively underappreciated performance, in my book. And yes, I would welcome a Kick-Ass 3.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Great Gatsby

Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
2013. Rated PG-13, 142 minutes. 
Cast: 
Elizabeth Debicki 
Amitabh Bachchan 
Adelaide Clemens

In 1922, Nick Carraway (Maguire) is one of the young, ambitious types who have flooded Wall Street looking for a big score. He's just moved into a small house on a rather exclusive island just outside New York City called West Egg. All of his neighbors are filthy rich and live in towering mansions. These are mostly people who've recently become wealthy. His next door neighbor, the mysterious Gatsby (DiCaprio) is one such fellow. Right across the bay is East Egg, a community made up of people from old money. There lives his cousin Daisy (Mulligan), who is married to the snobbish Tom Buchanan (Edgerton). Nick becoming tangled up in all of these people's affairs and their wild partying lifestyles ensues. In case you skipped high school, this is based on the famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Speaking of high school, that is where I first and last read the book and saw the original movie, starring Robert Redford in the titular role. Since that was at least umnumdiddily years ago, I have no recollection of the details. For all intents and purposes, I came into this blind. I'm okay with that. It makes it easier to judge the film on its own merits rather than how faithful it is to a classic piece of literature. So to all of you slamming it for not being as good as the book, I'm sorry. I just don't have that perspective. I am not saying that I just love this movie. Far from it. I am saying that my reasoning for what I view as pros and cons have nothing to do with the novel.

To start on the plus side, what can't be denied is that this is a remarkable looking film. The sets and the props all scream "roaring twenties." From the upscale mansions that reach toward the heavens to the grimy communities where the rich go to do their dirt, it all looks perfect. Add in the cars, costumes, color pallettes, and the grand time everyone seems to be having nearly at all times, and The Great Gatsby continuously dazzles the eyes. It's a vibrant world filled with people without a care in it. Their extravagant lives jump off the screen.

That extravagance is at the heart of the movie's slyly self-mocking sense of humor. It's not a comedy, but the people on the screen, especially Gatsby himself, have an understanding that they are ridiculously out of touch with the real world. They know that it's all "too much," yet they can't help but revel in the excess. They've cocooned themselves in bling and are quite giddy about their accomplishment.


Our wealthy fools are all played marvelously. Leonardo DiCaprio superbly shows us a man completely in tune with building his empire, however that may be, and presenting himself as a dashing figure. On the other hand, he tends to flap about like a fish on a boat when dealing with matters of the heart. His eventual rival, Tom Buchanan, is played nicely by Joel Edgerton as a relentless brute. He brandishes his life of privilege like a weapon and isn't afraid to use it. Carey Mulligan is wonderful as a woman torn, not in an emotional sense, but an ethical one. She has one treasure trove and is offered another. Her dilemma is deciding if she owes it to the man who gave her the first, to keep it. Finally, there's Maguire as Nick. He makes a nice mediator. More importantly, he's the closest thing to "one of us" we have in this world. As such, he maintains a somewhat incredulous disposition about everything.

Eventually, we have to get to the downside. Here we are. to start with something simple, let's talk music. In case you've forgotten, the movie is set in the early 1920s. That alone is more than reason enough for us not to be hearing Jay-Z every five minutes. To be honest, I've been a fan of Jigga for a very long time. I'm talking since well before most of you had ever heard of him. I'm talking since back when he cared more about his lyrics than trying to fit them to a radio-friendly beat. Right now, I can recite "Can't Knock the Hustle" totally from memory without pauses or mistakes, and without the song playing to guide me. I like a number of the tracks used here. Many of them are retro-fitted for a vaguely 20s feel. They just don't fit, no matter how they're altered. Having early twentieth century party goers kick their heels up to "Crazy in Love" is just silly, to me. It stinks on of a filmmaker over-reaching in an attempt to appeal to young audiences. For a movie that went through painstaking efforts to look authentic, this is a hard to forgive misstep in the opposite direction. Admittedly, if it makes your toes tap you might be willing to look past it. I couldn't.

The music is really just a symptom of a bigger problem. The whole thing feels empty and pointless. If not completely empty, then definitely shallow. I'm sure there is some grand interpretation of the American Dream and our remorseless capitalism to be culled from the fates of all involved. Those of you who have written papers on the novel, feel free to clue me in. Cinematically, it doesn't translate. On the screen, it comes off as a couple of flashy rich guys we don't particularly like in a pissing contest to see who gets to spoil the already spoiled princess. One is a heartless philanderer. The other is purposely a home-wrecker. Both men are exceedingly arrogant and self-centered. The question we wind up asking ourselves is do we really care which asshole gets the girl?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fruitvale Station

Directed by Ryan Coogler.
2013. Rated R, 85 minutes. 
Cast: 
Melonie Diaz 
Ahna O'Reilly 
Kevin Durand 
Ariana Neal 
Chad Michael Murray

During the first few hours of New Years' Day, 2009, 22 year old Oscar Grant (Jordan) was shot and killed by a police officer in the middle of a crowded train station. Of course, people captured the incident on their cell phones. Don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything. This is where the movie starts and it is based on a true story. From that opening, we then recount Oscar's final day. We find out quickly that he lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz) and their daughter Tatianna (Neal). Things aren't going according to plan. He tries to rectify the situation while not letting his family or anyone else know the struggles he's going through. This is in addition to the rough stretch of water he and Sophina are currently sailing together because of his infidelity. Walking a mile in Oscar's shoes ensues.

As portrayed by Jordan, Oscar is a guy that immediately pulls you in. The draw is that he feels like a flesh and blood human being, not a movie character. He's generally a nice guy who has made some bad mistakes. We see him efforting to change his ways and his luck. This is no easy task. Doing things the way he's done them before will provide at least a temporary refuge from some of his troubles. The key word is temporary. Besides, he can no longer stand the effects of his choices on those he loves. Given that last bit of info, it's no surprise he's a doting father, as well. Like many of us dads, his little girl has him wrapped around her finger and there is no place he'd rather be than with her. He has fun with her every chance he gets. On top of all this, it's his own mother's birthday (Spencer) and he wants to make it a special day for her, too.

Just those things we see on the surface make Oscar a remarkably well-rounded character. What viewers may not realize is how brilliant it is to make him such. Let's go back to the beginning, or actually, to the end. This is a movie about a young black man killed by a white cop. In many films, whether based on fact or fiction, similarly doomed protagonists are given halos and wings as they walk the Earth. Their shortcomings are generally side effects of their greatness. Oscar is no hero. He is just dude trying to support his family. This endears him to us. He's been in jail and is comtemplating whether or not he should continue to sell weed. We don't necessarily like these things, but given what else we know of him, he's hardly some super-evil boogeyman drug dealer who would make us quiver in his presence. Just as important is the fact that all of his issues are his own. Neither he nor the movie tries to lay blame for his problems any further than his own feet. This is important to ensure that we are squarely in his corner. He is a man standing at the crossroads trying to decide on a path. We're entirely willing to stare at the options with him.


Something else that has us in Oscar's corner are the people in his life. Despite whatever he's put them through, it's obvious they love him. They want desperately for him to do well. More than that, they enjoy his company. They like having him around. To the movie's credit, these other people are also well represented. As Sophina, Melonie Diaz gives a completely natural performance. When she shifts gears in how she addresses Oscar, we understand. It feels like a conversation we may have had with our upset significant other. She raises her voice in anger, changes her tone in confusion, and brings it down a few octaves to show concern. Her facial expressions all work, too. On the other hand, the looks she gives Oscar have nothing on the contortions Octavia Spencer does with her face as Oscar's mom. Every one of them conveys much more than the words she speaks. As good as she was in her Academy Award winning performance from The Help, it was a role that lapsed into caricature. There are no such issues, here. For my money, this is her better work.

The most unfortunate aspect of Fruitvale Station, aside from Oscar's death, is that it tackles a still relevant topic. At the very least, what happens to Oscar is an abuse of power and a gross over-reaction to a situation that could have been handled a lot better. At worse, and certainly not out of the question it's an outright act of racism. Even if the officer who pulled the trigger would not normally be considered a racist in his day-to-day dealings with people of color, what he does is quite possibly a reaction to fear stirred by the cumulative effect of a few centuries' worth of stereotypes rushing to mind in the heat of the moment. If he is a racist, well, that doesn't need any of my dime-store analysis. For that officer, there are no right answers. The other cops present may not find much good in their own actions, either. Instead of diffusing it, they exacerbated the situation, creating an unmanageable frenzy. Something bad was bound to happen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: The Warriors


I've been a bit of an insomniac for as long as I can remember. So it's no surprise that my first encounter with many of the movies I grew up with occurred long after sundown on ABC's "The Late Show." It's where I saw such classics as Blacula, The Car, and today's subject, The Warriors. I was probably eleven or twelve years old the first time I saw it and I was hooked right from the start. By the pounding score that opens the film, the trains barreling through the New York City subways (which I was fascinated by since I actually knew some of the men in the neighborhood who worked for New York Transit Authority), hordes of young men in small cliques that all dressed alike boarding these trains headed for something they're not sure about, a sense of mystery was created. I just had to know what was going on. We quickly find out that these cliques are nine representatives of the city's various gangs. When they got to this big meeting, we see them all surrounding a makeshift stage. It's a scene that literally uses a thousand people, most of them extras. It's a pretty striking visual to introduce us to this world.

Then Cyrus (Roger Hill) speaks.

In true 1970s fashion, this was released theatrically in 1979, he asks us all "Can you count, suckas?" He then proceeds to run down how the gangs can take over New York due to the sheer manpower numbers and there is nothing the police can do about it, provided the gangs work together. To get his audience riled up, both in person and those of us watching from the safety of our mother's living rooms, he asks "Can you dig it?" But wait, it's more of an declaration, certainly an exclamation, rather than a question so I'll change the punctuation so you can understand. He says, "Can you dig it! Can you dig it! CAN YOU DIG IIIIIIIIIIITTTTTT!"


The crowd goes wild.

Then Cyrus is shot.

Dead.

We saw the guy who actually did the shooting, but no one else did. He tells everyone it was the Warriors. Cleon (Dorsey Wright), the leader of the Warriors happens to standing in a crowd of guys belonging to the Gramercy Riffs, Cyrus' gang. They put a beat down on Cleon and we never see him again. The remaining eight Warriors get away as the police show up. Now they have to make it back to their home turf of Coney Island. One little problem. Every gang in the city is after them.

From there, the movie is just a huge chunk of teenage boy/juvenile delinquent fantasy. The gangs all dress alike in the most amazing and/or awful outfits to ever grace the silver screen. Our heroes themselves opt for blue jeans and a brown leather vest that most wear without a shirt underneath. The Riffs mostly wear orange gais and all know martial arts. There are also the Turnbull AC's with their all denim look and bald heads. The Boppers are decked out in black dress shirts, purple vests, purple ties, purple fedoras, and white slacks. Nothing says 'gangsta' like white slacks. The Hi-Hats rock red shirts with black stripes down the sleeves, black suspenders and pants, and yes, they wear top hats. Oh, they also have their faces painted like mimes. Speaking of face paint, this brings us to the most famous gang of them all aside from the Warriors themselves, the Baseball Furies. Yes, their faces are all done up as well, but that's not what people remember most about them. Their outfit is a full blown baseball uniform, complete with cleats and a bat. I say 'Wow!' every time I see this movie.

Okay, we just gotta take a break for those of you who haven't seen it to understand the type of outfits I'm talking about...

The Warriors

The Gramercy Riffs

The Boppers

The Hi-Hats

The Baseball Furies

Got it? Good. Let's move on...

I've seen this movie God-knows-how-many times. No matter how often I watch it, I have a blast. Swan (Michael Beck), who takes over leadership of the Warriors after Cleon goes down is the coolest dude in the world. His butting heads with the hotheaded Ajax (James Remar) gives us some juicy tension within the group. The local radio DJ spinning tunes that serve as code for the gangs around the city while also giving them a play-by-play of the pursuit of our heroes is a stroke of cinematic genius. Masai (Edward Sewer), who takes over the Riffs is just as scary as Swan is cool. Of course, there's a girl. Her name is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). She's tough and just kinda hangs around until Swan takes a liking to her. Speaking of girls, Mercedes Ruehl, whose credits include Last Action Hero, Big, and Married to the Mob, shows up as an undercover cop. Even a young Debra Winger shows up as an extra. Finally, David Patrick Kelly is just plain nutty as Luther, the leader of the Rogues and the man who shot Cyrus.

Back when I was a kid, I feel old just typing that, there were gangs. They were dangerous, but were not anywhere near the scourge on society the way we currently think of them. In terms of pop culture, we thought more of West Side Story or one of those outfits that had a run-in with The Fonze on Happy Days. Not quite on the same level, is it? The Warriors is a 1979 movie that exists as a midway point between the two extremes. These guys still have a predilection for looking goofy by dressing in matching outfits, but taking a life is sometimes part of the deal. They fall somewhere between West Side Story and Colors. Their attire would have them fit right in with the Sharks and the Jets. However, they aren't nearly so innocuous as to be doing musical numbers. On the other hand, they aren't the outright banes of urban humanity, the way they are in Colors. Or in real life.


That real life part is what makes The Warriors a little bit troublesome for me as a father. It can certainly be seen as a glorification of gangs. However, these gangs are so cartoonish they don't much resemble anything my kids have actually heard of, or possibly encountered. To be honest, it helps that these are a multicultural collection of knuckleheads and there are barely any guns present. A movie glorifying a cast solely consisting of Black and Latino young men would probably seem much more harsh to me. Cast as it is, it has more of a 'we're all knuckleheads' kind of feel. And like I said, it's a bit on the goofy side. So the thought of my son running out and joining a gang after seeing it never entered my mind. He watched and wondered what kind of madness I was showing him. My youngest daughter did the same, out loud, right at the beginning. As we see all of the different gangs assembling for the big meeting where Cyrus would meet his end, she said "If I see one more group all dressed up alike I'm going to scream." No, I hadn't warned her beforehand. She didn't scream, but she did roll her eyes really hard. By the end, they were both into it. And they both wanted to slap me as I sang along with Luther on his now famous deranged taunting of our heroes, "Warriors, come out to play-yay!" I just couldn't help myself. I won't be able to help myself next time, either.




R.I.P. Roger Hill AKA Cyrus
Jul. 31, 1948 - Feb. 25, 2014

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

Directed by Jay Oliva.
2012. Rated PG-13, 76 minutes. 
Cast: 
Michael Emerson 
David Selby 
Mark Valley 
Carlos Alazraqui 
Paget Brewster 
Maria Canals-Barrera 
Grey DeLisle 
Michael Jackson 
Tress MacNeille 
Jim Meskimen 
Conan O'Brien 
Rob Paulsen 
Andrea Romano 
Tara Strong
                                                  
At the end of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, we got the kind of tease that makes most Batman fans giddy. We found out the Joker (Emerson) was getting into the fray. The re-emergence of Batman (Weller) has inspired the Clown Prince of Crime to come out of the catatonic state he's been in for years. His first order of business is getting out of the looney bin. He manages this by convincing his doctor to arrange an appearance on a local talk show. Yup. Not surprisingly, this doesn't work out woo well for the people of Gotham. Our hero knew that would be the case, but can't quite get there to stop it. He has to deal with an army of Gotham's finest. With Gordon officially retired, Commissioner Yindel (Canals-Barrera), the city's new top cop has made it a priority to put Batman behind bars. Okay then, game on.

So far, it sounds like it's setting up another classic clash of the titans, right? It does. Eventually. this then leads to a showdown with none other than Superman (Valley). This is also epic. Unfortunately, there is just way too much other stuff going on. Worse, much of this other stuff is of too broad a scope and/or poorly executed. For starters, Batman is now a master of Mission: Impossible style disguise. I was cool with this until he miraculously hooks one up in seconds. Next, there was the Bruno, a topless female who looks like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, just with boobs. To preserve that PG-13 rating, her nipples are covered with swastikas. The scope comes into play as we start getting into a nuclear strike by Russia against the U.S. It's brought up then dropped as if it's resolved when it's not. It is just an overblown plot device to get Superman in the condition we need him. By the way, it's a world in which Supes works directly for the President of the United States. Youngsters who watch likely won't realize that this president is very obviously Ronald Reagan. Why? I understand this is an adaptation of Frank Miller's work from 1986 when Reagan was actually president, but an update would've been okay. By the way, the drawing of Superman as Clark Kent is just plain funny to me. The first time we see him he looks like he's posing for the cover of a romance novel.


So far, it sounds like I hate this movie, but that's not actually the case. In fact, when the movie focuses on the Joker and the subsequent battle with Superman, it's phenomenal. The Joker is as brutal as he's ever been, piling up an impressive body count. Everything surrounding him plays out in graphic fashion. It's often cringe worthy, but in a good way. Of course, the big question is does he finally win? Does he accomplish the one thing he's been after the most for all these years? There is certainly a case to be made that he does. The Superman stuff provides a similar dilemma. Both guys can feel like they won. I won't divulge why they're fighting, but the depiction of it is amazing.

Part 1 is a consistently solid effort. Part 2 over-reaches its boundaries on a number of occasions, giving it an uneven feel. In other words, it's spectacular in some spots, and pretty bad in others. There is loads of action which will keep some viewers excited, particularly because it is pretty visceral stuff. Lots of gore and unrestrained mayhem abound. It has led lots of viewers to gush over how great it is. I'm not quite on that bandwagon because even on this front, there are some letdowns. On a few occasions, police officers and bad guys alike are within five feet of the Caped Crusader spraying shots from automatic weapons. It is more than obvious our hero should be riddled with bullets. I know, I know. It's a Batman cartoon. Some impossible things are to be expected. This just gets to be a bit much. Again, I understand wanting to be faithful to the highly regarded source material. However, just because something is highly regarded doesn’t mean it’s perfect. This certainly is not. Like I said, it’s great in some spots, and nearly incoherent in others. When working with a mess, I think it’s okay to tidy it up a bit.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

Directed by Jay Oliva.
2012. Rated PG-13, 76 minutes. 
Cast: 
David Selby 
Carlos Alazraqui 
Paget Brewster 
Maria Canals-Barrera 
Richard Doyle 
Grey DeLisle 
Sam McMurray 
Andrea Romano 
Tara Strong 
Michael Emerson 
Michael Jackson

It has been ten years since Bruce Wayne (Weller) has dressed up as a bat and went crime-fighting. To fill the void, he partakes in other ways of trying to kill himself...er...get the adrenaline pumping. He's also become quite the prolific drinker. He says it helps him stay on the sidelines. He's really using it to cope with the tragedy that eventually led to him becoming Batman, the murder of his parents. In any event, it's getting harder to stay out of the game now that Gotham has a new menace, an out-of-control street gang calling themselves the Mutants. What makes these guys particularly dangerous is they like to commit random acts of violence, making them unpredictabel. They also like to take over Gotham TV and threaten city officials by name. This includes Commissioner Gordon (Selby) who has just announced he is retiring shortly. He vows to get the Mutants off the streets before punching out for the last time. After a couple of these punks have a run-in with Bruce, our hero decides it's time to don the cape and cowl once more.

We get a Batman that's older and not quite as in shape as he once was. Like an aging athlete, he knows all the moves to make yet can't make them as fluidly as he did in his prime. That said, I'm fairly certain the tight-rope walking act he pulls is a new trick. Still, we see him laboring to do things he once did with ease. Of course, as mentioned, he's still haunted by the death of his parents. This helps paint a picture of a more pathetic Batman than we're used to. We wonder if he's finally gotten to the point where he can't always come out on top.


The Mutants are both a help and a hindrance to our uncertainty about our hero. The leader is a help, somewhat. He's definitely not a match for Batman's wits, but he's more than one for him physically. He is huge and vicious. He's also slightly inhuman in appearance. Unfortunately, this could stand to be explained a bit, but the fact he's called a mutant is all we get. His fights with the Caped Crusader are brutal and well depicted. The guys who follow him are a disappointment. They are a never ending horde of nearly identical dudes who look like 80s punk-rockers and speak a rather corny sounding slang/broken English. They also don't have much heart. This army of knife wielding "slicer dicers," as they like to call themselves are more of  and annoyance than a menace.

Villain-wise, we also get Harvey Dent (Williams) in a truncated story line. At first glance, it seems extraneous. Digging a bit deeper, and maybe forcing it just a bit, it becomes a representation of Batman's past and a reflection of what his own mental anguish is doing to him. Another blast from our hero's past is the Joker (Emerson). However, this is merely to set up Part 2 of our tale.

Overall, Part 1 works very well. The story is fascinating and since we know this is a two-part deal, we can excuse the lack of resolution in some areas. the main drawback is that it covers a healthy chunk of the ground covered in The Dark Knight Rises. The set up is essentially the same. Batman has been away from crime-fighting long enough to fade into myth, yet he's still wanted by police. Plus, a new threat draws him out of retirement. Some of the beats that follow are the same, including how his relationship with Alfred (Jackson) changes. It gives the movie a more derivative feel than it probably wants. The irony here is that the original comic book this movie is based on, penned by the legendary Frank Miller, came out in 1986 and served as inspiration for Christopher Nolan's trilogy ending film. The problem is there are far more people who have seen The Dark Knight Rises than have read Miller's work. Still, this movie holds our interest as it does enough things that are different. Chief among them is Batman's quick acceptance of a young girl who dresses up like Robin (Winter). Again, Part 1 also benefits from the promise of a Part 2. Rather than being a movie with a satisfying conclusion, it gives us something to look forward to.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The World's End

Directed by Edgar Wright.
2013. Rated R, 109 minutes. 
Cast: 
Michael Smiley 
David Bradley
Sophie Evans

In the twenty-plus years since college, Gary King (Pegg) has had a rough go of it. We meet him while he's in rehab, recounting the best night of his life. It was near the end of this senior year when he and his chums tried to complete the "Golden Mile." This includes drinking at least one pint of beer at each of the twelve pubs stretched over a few blocks in their hometown of Newton Haven. They didn't quite make it, but it was still an epic night. Realizing that even his very best night was one of unfulfilled potential he decides to give it another try. He recruits his old buddies, all of whom reluctantly agree despite the fact they've moved on from such antics. Except for repeatedly butting heads with Andy (Frost), his former sidekick, things start off reasonably well. This changes a few pubs in when the gang discovers there is something very strange about the people in their old stomping grounds. It seems much of the population has been replaced by robots. Our heroes trying to survive the night, figure out who is responsible and why, and still complete the "Golden Mile" ensues.

Early on, the movie is just a tad flat. Our hero attempting to convince his buddies to come along and then arguing over the past is okay, but nothing special. It's done to establish the characters, which is fine. It just isn't as funny as one might expect given the track record of the people involved. There are the usual sly references to other films, some overt ones, a healthy dose of sarcasm and smarter-than-you-think jokes. The main issue is we find ourselves waiting on something, anything to happen. Thankfully, just as we're getting restless, something does. The robots show up and the movie shifts into high gear.


With the switch in gears comes a genre change, too. We go from a straight comedy to one that inclues action and sci-fi. The fun factor increases exponentially and the things we did like from earlier in the movie remain. The jokes come a little quicker and the time between them is filled with a much more kinetic energy. Beneath it all, the relationship between Gary and Andy barrels toward a head. Something has to give. As much as dealing with the robots, getting us to brace ourselves for the inevitable moment of truth the two must share propels the movie.

Through all of the goings on, we get a surprisingly intense examination of Gary. He appears to be an acute sufferer of Peter Pan Syndrome. He doesn't wanna grow up. His reasoning is stated plainly early on, but over time we are made aware how deep his scars run. Honestly, much of it is his own doing. This makes him a pathetic figure, though not entirely sympathetic. He's just another big man on campus who drowned when he found himself in deeper waters. Instead of swimming, he chose to sink. We don't necessarily dislike Gary, but our heart belongs more to Andy. Andy is the one who thinks most clearly of the bunch, and stands up to Gary. Most importantly, he has his act together.

I understand depth is not the reason we watch comedies. It's nice that it's there, but we want to laugh. Watching this, we do. How much depends on a few factors. One is how you feel about a style of humor often, but not always, more subtle than much of what passes for comedy these days. For instance, a rather clever running gag involves the etymology of the word 'robot.' Another factor might be whether or not you've seen Shaun of the Dead. The World's End covers a lot of the same territory. At times, it feels like we just swapped out zombies for 'bots. So while it's a fun and funny movie, even a notch above most recent comedies, it doesn't quite achieve greatness.



MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Monsters University

Directed by San Scanlon.
2013. Rated PG, 104 minutes. 
Cast: 
Nathan Fillion 
Julia Sweeney

Instead of continuing the story of Monsters, Inc., we take a trip back in time to the college days of our heroes. Most of our focus is on Mike (Crystal). He's wanted to be the greatest scarer of all-time since he was a very young monster. He is so obsessed with the idea, he has literally worked toward it his entire life. There is absolutely no question that he will major in Scaring when en enters Monsters University. There is one little bitty issue. Mike is not particularly scary. Soon, he meets Sully (Goodman), our other hero.

Sully is a natural, having descended from some of the industry's greats. He is much more of a jock while Mike is a bookworm. They do not get along. Their bickering even occurs in class and winds up getting them both kicked out of the Scaring program. As a last-ditch effort to get back in, they make a wager with Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren), who dislikes them both. If they, and the fraternity of misfits they're stuck with, win the campus Scare Games, they will be allowed back into the program. If they do not, they must leave school altogether.

Early on, the differences between Mike and Sully form a solid foundation for the movie. It's not just their arguing, but the choices each makes, and the people with whom they surround themselves. Best of all, Mike isn't a meek personality. He's a feisty little guy, not afraid to tell the big bad Sully what he thinks of him. Later on, their having to work together is the satisfactory development of a friendship. It is appropriately rocky, but undoubtedly on an upward swing. What's set up by all of this is a classic underdog story. When the movie launches into the Scare Games, it's fun watching the guys navigate the various events and figure out a way through them. We see them grow and bond as a team and have a good time doing it.


None of this would matter if the movie weren't funny. It is just that all the way through. Many of the jokes don't come from our heroes, though. The supporting players bring much more of the funny. The star of the show, in this regard, is Sherri Squibbles, the mother of one of the misfits. Julia Sweeney does a wonderful job with the voice and she is just a hilarious character. She lights up the screen every time she graces it. Another standout, in less screen time, is Steve Buscemi's reprisal of his role as Randy. As for Mike and Sully, they do have a number of funny moments, but they're more responsible for the drama. That drama is also well-handled. it is tense at the right times. The tension is cranked up the highest during a scene late in the movie when some horror elements are introduced. Also helping in the tension department is Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble. She provides us with a solid villain with a commanding presence.

Though this is an underdog story, Monsters University is to be commended for not being satisfied with the easy finish. It seems to give us this and appears all set to ride off into the sunset. Instead, it throws us a bit of a curveball and the film continues. Rather than feeling like a false finish, it works in service of the developing relationship of our heroes and strengthens the movie for us. It directly leads to the finale which, as I mentioned, makes very nice use of horror movie tropes. When it actually does end, whether the kiddies watching realize this or not, the movie is better for going the extra mile.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Europa Report

Directed by Sebastian Cordero.
2013. Rated PG-13, 90 minutes. 
Cast: 
Karolina Wydra 
Daniel Wu 
Embeth Davidtz 
Christian Camargo 
Anamaria Marinca 
Isiah Whitlock Jr. 

The first thing we are shown is the last image transmitted before communications broke down with the man-made space vessel, the Europa One. It carried a crew of six on mankind's first foray into deep space. The name was taken from their destination, one of Jupiter's moons. Their mission was to see if they could find further evidence that we are not alone in the universe. Europa was chosen because apparently scientists learned water is present there. Of course, the theory is where there is water, there is life. So, what happened?

We find out what went wrong through found footage of the fateful flight. This footage is interspersed with "interviews" of some talking heads who were involved with the mission from here on Earth, televised news clips, and some reality TV style confessionals from the astronauts themselves. Combined with the dead serious tone of much of the movie, this gives us the feel of watching a documentary rather than a dramatization. The technique works pretty well. Europa One's crew is natural during the footage of them working and living together and in an explanatory mood during the one-on-one time with the camera. Our Earth-bound higher-ups are sufficiently reflective and stuffy.

The footage itself nicely blends sci-fi with elements of horror. There is plenty of NASA style jargon spoken, but it's all explained. We don't get lost in a see of run-on sentences filled with multi-syllabic words. However, we still feel like these are people far more qualified than ourselves to be embarking on such a journey. On the horror end of things, it borrows heavily from Alien. This isn't a bad thing as it adds a sense of dread to the proceedings. That dread is juxtaposed with their relative calmness, at first, then their excitement over the possibilities. They don't become fearful until late into the movie. Even then, they're not afraid of what we think they should be.


In general, there are two main problems with found footage films. First, someone always has to have a camera and what we should realistically be able to see is limited. If someone isn't already holding the camera, they always have to remember to grab it before running away from whatever is giving them problems. The nature of the mission our heroes are on helps The Europa Report skirt the issue. It's man's first trip beyond our own moon. Communication must be kept with mission control here on Earth. Aside from that, everything that happens is an historic event and worthy of recording. Therefore, there are cameras all over the ship and on just about every piece of mobile equipment the crew has. For the most part, we see whatever any one of them can see without breaking the rules. The other issue is one the movie can't really avoid. The conclusion feels pre-ordained, even to the least astute viewers. The footage is found because the people in it were not. This is not a spoiler, it's a genre fact. Start with The Blair Witch Project, work your way forward and you'll see what I mean. Having this knowledge can rob a film of its impact. And so it does, just a bit. To its credit, the movie manages to retain some power with a well chosen stopping point.

All told, The Europa Report is a solid entry into the found footage canon. Its plot and setting helps it remain unencumbered by many of the genre's normal contrivances. Therefore, the movie is free to concentrate on building tension and suspense the same way as more traditionally narrative films. It does a pretty good job. This isn't quite a horror flick, but it does make solid use of many of that genre's tropes which keeps us engaged.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Parkland

Directed by Peter Landesman. 
2013. Rated R, 93 minutes. 
Cast: 

As we were all reminded last year, during which the 50th anniversary of the event occurred, Pres. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX on November 22, 1963. Parkland tells the story of what happened starting a few moments before he was shot until the time he was buried a few days later. The title refers to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Pres. Kennedy was taken after being shot. We go there with him and go through the attempts to save his life, headed up by Dr. Jim Carrico (Efron), a very young doctor, and seasoned head nurse Doris Nelson (Harden). We see how first the Secret Service and then hordes of media folk descend upon Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti) when it becomes known that he caught the tragedy on film. We're also privy to the fed's handling of Lee Harvey Oswald (Strong) and his family. Finally, we deal with the shift in focus to protecting Lyndon B. Johnson who suddenly found himself President of the United States.

The fly on the wall perspective makes this about as close to being there as a movie is likely to get. To perpetuate that feeling, the camera is often in odd locations. A lot of times it is at a distance we would normally think of as too close. We can't make out much of the rooms these people are in. This is particularly true of the scenes in the operating room. It helps foster the feeling of being in a crowded space with almost no wiggle room. Outside the hospital, this technique hints at how little each person involved was really aware of, or could see from their vantage point.


In keeping with its documentary like survey of events, the acting is so good across the board it feels like we are watching the actual people live through a moment in history. Paul Giamatti and Marcia Gay Harden are, excellent as always. Billy Bob Thornton simply dominates the screen in one of his better, but bound to be underrated performances. Even Zac Efron impresses. His portrayal of Dr. Carrico rings true right from the start. In the film's showiest performance, Jacki Weaver is absolutely mind-blowing as Lee Harvey Oswald's mother Marguerite. She quickly becomes a person we love to hate, possibly even more than her son who killed arguably the most beloved U.S. president of the 20th century. Kudos to Weaver for completely selling it. Conversely, the person we most sympathize with is her other son Robert played with remorse for his brother's actions by James Badge Dale.

Clocking in at a shade under ninety minutes when you subtract the credits, it is a movie that moves at an extraordinary pace. It packs each frame to the gills and sprints by. As fast as it moves, it has no time to do what a lot of movies based on true events can. There is no theorizing about grassy knolls, second shooters, and the like. There also doesn't appear to be much in the way of agenda pushing. It just punches us right in the mouth with the most corroborated parts of a still mysterious story. It ends without any speculation whatsoever. Therefore, Parkland is certainly not the most contemplative JFK movie you'll ever see, but it's likely the most visceral one.


MY SCORE: 9/10