Monthly Archives: June 2013

Man of Steel — 5/10

MAN OF STEEL (2013, Zack Snyder): 5/10

Not bad for the first hour or so, with Snyder’s style lending some surrealist gravity to a fundamentally ridiculous origin story of an alien with muscles who says stuff like “I grew up in Kansas; I’m as American as it gets.” But then it turns into one of the loudest films ever made with a final hour full of nonstop destruction (the devastation to Metropolis is a hundred times the level of 9/11, but the aftermath isn’t even considered) and the screen turns into a garbage disposal of CGI crumbs and lights. Props to the production design of Alex McDowell (FIGHT CLUB, MINORITY REPORT) for crafting a visually striking sense of an alien universe on vacation to Earth, but the punishing noises and violence are downright shallow and ultimately boring. Adams, Fishburne, Meloni, and Schiff are stranded with roles forcing them to be humorless cogs, and although Shannon does a lot of glowering and shouting, he’s no Terence Stamp. Russell Crowe gets it — his Jor-El is a character that lands forcefully — and Cavill acquits himself nicely by straddling the line between corny and studly. But overall this is a fairly cynical blockbuster that refuses to engage its material beyond the capacity for spectacle, and if you’re wondering if a summer superhero film can have something to say as well as look cool, then don’t just look to Nolan’s Batman — look to Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN. It can be done. And maybe this film’s sequel will try harder.

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World War Z — 6/10

WORLD WAR Z (2013, Marc Forster): 6/10

I was chatting with some Twitter cinephiles recently regarding the subject of brilliantly-directed stupid movies. Some examples thrown out were THE VILLAGE, KNOWING, THE FOUNTAIN, and FEARDOTCOM, all to one extent or another fairly dumb pieces of crap (I actually like THE VILLAGE a lot) but directed with a lot of skill — an artistic eye, creative ambition… just overall visual panache that overcomes thematic retardation. WORLD WAR Z is the polar opposite of that phenomenon — an ineptly-directed good film.

Auteur theorists would respond that such a thing is impossible — if a film is poorly directed, then by definition it can’t be good. And in a way they’re right; this isn’t a particularly successful movie. The result is distinctly mediocre. But when I call it “good,” I’m referring to the essence of it trying to sneak out past Forster’s incompetence. There are things in the script here — a very good screenplay credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan as well as Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof — that display a lot of respect for the audience’s intelligence. Actions are taken without any expository explanation (seemingly the work of Carnahan, who supplied the same deftness to the clever STATE OF PLAY) and they propel the story forward at a relentless place — never stopping to have characters discuss everything going on just to get the slower members of the audience up to speed.

Unfortunately, each of these sly decisions in writing is undercut by Marc Forster’s camera. He’s either too close or too far from the action almost all the time, and his hyperactive editing style makes mincemeat out of all the setpieces. It’s extraordinarily difficult to figure out what’s going on sometimes, a problem further exacerbated by the studio’s insistence on a film about the zombie apocalypse (with a body count that soars into the billions) having a PG-13 rating. The violence is bloodless, off-screen, and comically invisible. Even worse, Forster is clearly tone deaf. He plays some scenes for irony when it’s not called for, other scenes dead serious, and can never find a balance between playfulness, morbidity, and emotion.

Stories about the film’s troubled production are well known, and evidently the last 20 minutes went through extensive reshoots. But although the final Cardiff-set suspense sequence is often pretty cool, it also destroys what was originally good about the script: a lack of insipid exposition. At one point, a character walks right past a zombie without being attacked, and a witness turns to someone else and says, “He walked right past him!” Thanks for the news, Mr. State the Obvious. Perhaps those reshoots were the problem.

So ultimately, there’s a really strong film — albeit a formulaic and derivative one — somewhere in here, but it’s nearly impossible to see through the wall of shitty camerawork, and the climax is both effective and clumsy at the same time. I can’t recommend WORLD WAR Z, but it’s frustrating because it’s not just a semi-decent, middling film: it’s both a really good one and a really bad one fighting with itself.

 

EDIT: I’m adding this graf one day after publishing the review. Above, I heaped praise upon the screenplay, which at the time I had no knowledge of beyond the credits on screen. (Which is why I wrote “credited to,” specifically because I had a hunch others worked on it but were typically uncredited doctors). Well, today I just found out that Christopher McQuarrie did a rewrite (according to a tweet by Lindelof). If you’ve read my JACK REACHER review, or heard me ramble on every day for the last 10 years about how much I love THE WAY OF THE GUN, then you know I’m a big McQuarrie fanboy. But lest anyone accuse me of lauding the WORLD WAR Z script simply because of McQuarrie’s name, this should be proof that I did so without knowing he was involved. The same is true of GHOST PROTOCOL, which I put on my 2011 top ten list before learning CMcQ did an uncredited rewrite of that as well. So basically, I don’t like McQuarrie films because I like McQuarrie — I like McQuarrie because I’ve liked so much of his work.

That said, a day later, I’m still super pissed about how badly this film was directed. And based on the boffo box office numbers from WWZ’s opening weekend, studios will now continue to ruin their films by hiring Marc Forster.

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This Is the End — 7/10

THIS IS THE END (2013, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg): 7/10

But don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of problems with this thing. It looks cheap (the special effects are supposed to be campy but they’re really really cheap), the staging is often inept, and it has a terribly unfunny scene where one character gets raped by a cloven-hoofed, horned beast. But damned if I wasn’t laughing so hard at some scenes that my eyes were watering.

The premise — six friends trapped in a house during the apocalypse, who must learn to be selfless and honorable in order to rescue their souls from damnation — could lend itself to thinking this is a movie about redemption, religion, and morality. But I think those are just tropes. In a lot of ways this is a film about celebrity and the dubious culture surrounding it. All the actors play comical versions of themselves, but this isn’t Neil Patrick Harris in the HAROLD & KUMAR movies. Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Robinson, Hill, McBride, and everyone else (well, with the exception of Michael Cera, who really is doing the NPH thing — and to much hilarity) do mean to let their own personalities come out. In the opening scene, a vacuous paparazzo simultaneously kisses Rogen’s ass and insults him within 10 seconds, setting up the thesis that the outside world has no idea who these actors are while thinking they know everything. The continued jokes throughout about how, as actors, these guys feel more important than everyone else, have some sting. And of course, when Rihanna and Jason Segel are killed like extras in a disaster movie, the film quickly and efficiently proves the obvious and human vulnerability of everyone — celebrity or not.

The middle section of the film, which conveniently (to rescue the budget) keeps the apocalypse mostly at bay in order to deliver laughs involving six comic actors fighting for their lives in the fortress that is James Franco’s house, is almost as amazing as the first 20 minutes. The VIP of the group is Danny McBride, almost outshining himself from his prior pièce de résistance, EASTBOUND & DOWN. McBride’s well-established character — a boorish, offensive, faux-macho redneck with a surprisingly strong vocabulary and overly defensive personality — is never not hilarious.  And the film’s insistence that the character he played alongside Rogen and Franco in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is his real life persona adds to the meta-humor. Also, Jonah Hill is randomly wearing a diamond earring for no reason that goes unexplained. (Though McBride does point out to Hill that “you are now an Academy Award-nominated person”).

Comedy is always fairly subjective, so a lot of my praise for this film comes from personally finding this acting troupe a gas. My favorite comedies of this generation all come from The State and its brilliant cast: Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Joe LoTruglio, Kerri Kenney, Tom Lennon, and Ben Garant. Under the direction of David Wain (or Showalter), and having added Paul Rudd as an honorary captain, this team has given us WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, ROLE MODELS, THE BAXTER, STELLA, CHILDRENS HOSPITAL, and WANDERLUST. But if I had to pick a second favorite “company,” it would be the team that sprung out of the school of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig. Apatow and Feig started with FREAKS & GEEKS and UNDECLARED, where you’ll find Rogen, Franco, Baruchel, Segel, and Martin Starr. Along the way, they’ve added McBride, Robinson, Cera, and Hill, and you’ll have a hard time finding a funnier batch of stoners. (Funny thing is, I’m kind of a square when it comes to drugs and I hate weed — but if all stoner comedies were like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, it would be my favorite genre). So that’s why I was laughing so hard through most of THIS IS THE END.

The film squeezes in some more meta stuff besides jokes like “you can make PINEAPPLE EXPRESS 2, but please don’t make YOUR HIGHNESS 2.” It points out the ridiculousness of disaster movie cliches, and has fun putting its sarcasm-drenched dialogue in the mouths of demonically possessed actors (proving that this apocalyptic horror genre is a perfect fit for stoner comedy) with lines like “Oh really? Does the power of Christ compel me? Well guess what, it isn’t all that compelling!” The result is a film that’s going to annoy the shit out of anyone who isn’t on this comic wavelength (because aesthetically it has very little to offer) but I’m still wiping tears of laughter off my face.

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Black Rock — 3/10

BLACK ROCK (2013, Katie Aselton): 3/10

Three emotionally volatile, dramatic women go on a camping trip to a deserted island, where they meet three shell-shocked male soliders who quickly proceed to rape and/or hunt/kill them. I’m all for a female-centric DELIVERANCE (as seems to be the catchy shorthand to describe this, though that’s a serious disservice to Boorman’s film) but this sets back the gender movement about 60 years. None of the six people on screen is remotely likable, which is saying something given that one of them is played by Lake Bell, an incredibly gifted comic actress (who gets to turn that off completely in this deadly serious exploitation flick) who seems impossible to dislike. At least in your typical female revenge film like MS. 45 or I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, the bad guys aren’t saddled with the baggage of PTSD — meaning this is either an anti-war film arguing that war’s effect on its survivors is devastating psychosis, or it’s just a film that grossly simplifies and/or doesn’t give a shit about soldiers returning home.

Thematic ugliness aside, my biggest problems with the film are purely technical. Aselton’s direction is soulless and barely functional. There isn’t a single shot that reveals any artistic stamp or distinct vision, and at times she lets her editor down by failing to provide enough coverage to cut together a conversation scene without continuity errors. Rhythmically it’s all over the map and feels both way too long and way too short (at 80 minutes or so). The cinematography is ridiculous — night scenes are overlit to the point of comedy; either this remote island is equipped with a monstrously powered flood light at its peak, or the moon is emitting enough blinding white illumination that we should fear it may crash into the earth. Even the static day shots are framed poorly. Seriously, the lack of skill in this thing all around (aside from Bell and Bosworth) makes me realize how much I take quality cinematography and editing for granted.

But I’ve saved the worst offender for last: Jay Paulson (whom you might remember as Don Draper’s ill-fated younger brother on MAD MEN) is… not good. His performance as the head of this stupid triad of rapist/killer soldiers is the kind of thing I never see in a movie that gets legitimate distribution. How producer Duplass and director Aselton allowed Paulson to get on set and deliver this turn is inexplicable. His reactions to nearly every incident in the film are tonally inconsistent, unbelievable and risible. It’s not only the decisions his character makes, but the decisions Paulson makes — the evil grin he puts on as if he’s a henchman in a Steven Seagal film, the shit-losing profanity-laced tirades that make it seem like he’s a college frat boy who just found out he missed last call… none of it makes sense together. I felt embarrassed for him and for the movie at large. Luckily for him, the film was gonna be a bust anyway.

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