For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bad Teacher


It takes one charismatic actor to make a complete scoundrel likable, admirable even. Malcolm McDowell did it in Stanley Kubrick's dystopian sadist-opera, "A Clockwork Orange". He played Alex DeLarge, a delinquent and rapist who still manages to be the coolest and most human character in the film. In 2003's Christmas heist flick, "Bad Santa", Billy Bob Thornton played an alcoholic bum and sex addict who was so pitiable and life-trampled that he basically cried out for redemption -- something that the holidays can (at least in our hearts) aptly provide. But the real reason why these despicable anti-heroes made us care, despite their misdeeds, was that their depravity came from somewhere deeper, and more meaningful, than mindless cruelty. Thornton's "evil" department-store-santa was essentially a product of utter self-loathing and apathetic misanthropy; he was an emotional hobo in need of the nearest shelter's "chicken noodle soup for the soul." McDowell's Alex, a closet Beethoven enthusiast, was a prophetic caution about the possibility of twenty-first-century lawlessness, and its suffocation of human decency; he symbolized a greater struggle between our enlightened angels and our wicked, anarchic ones. We like him because we are him, and he is us.

I thought a lot about these two successfully sympathetic scumbags as I watched Cameron Diaz (a not unlikable actress) strut her way through the hallways and classrooms of a white bread, suburban learning institution -- where she abuses students and co-workers alike -- in the new comedy, "Bad Teacher". A long-limbed fashionista with a catwalk swagger and look of too-cool disdain, Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey entertains her students with repeat viewings of "Stand and Deliver" while she sleeps, drinks, smokes weed, and dotes over geeky/hunk substitute Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). Because she's little more than a superficial gold digger, she's convinced a boob job will win her Delacorte's big heart and -- equally big -- trust fund. Thus begins her crusade to earn the dough -- chump change at a time by means of parental bribes, fundraising car washes turned hair-metal skin videos, and other wily manipulations. Along the way she rebuffs advances from a gym teacher (an effortlessly charming Jason Segel) and battles a prissy rival (Lucy Punch) for Delacorte's affection.

As far as on-screen dirtbags go, Elizabeth Halsey is one of the nastiest I've seen in years. Guided by Diaz's ultra brave two-faced-gutter-queen performance, the character projects hateful egomania. And the film, for better or worse, revels in the stink of its heroine's iniquity; writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg don't apologize for her, but get-off on the thrill of writing a character this "Bad". Taken to the ultimate extreme the film might have been special -- it might have been the first post-Apatow, raunch-romcom with a soul of sweetly self-satisfied sewage. But Stupnitsky and Eisenberg feel the need to give Halsey pea-sized traces of insight and amiability that serve as little more than cliched cracks in the film's fortress wall of badass-ery. All these slivers of sensitivity are perfunctory, and it seems the writers would have preferred them axed from the final film anyway. Undercut by flimsy story structure (how a boob job will catch the attention of a what's on the inside is more important bleeding heart like Timberlake's Delecorte is still a mystery to me), Elizabeth Halsey remains a character in search of a better movie. And since she's a stereotypical scoundrel of movie-world fantasia -- a place where teachers don't get fired for cursing students out and pummeling them with dodgeballs -- and not a lost puppy (like Thornton's Chris Kringle) or a cultural parable (like Alex DeLarge), she remains a wretch without reason. Unless... did the writers mean for the film to be an indictment of the American Teachers Union? On second thought, that might be giving them a little too much credit.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

13 Assassins


There's an old saying: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Takashi Miike, the Japanese director behind "13 Assassins", takes it a bit further: If you can't beat 'em, rip 'em off. In the online corporate world they call it gamesmanship or intellectual property theft, depending on which side you're on (isn't Facebook just a smoother version of MySpace?). In the music business it's called "sampling." In film, we lovingly refer to it as homage, but often it's really just copying. (I wonder what Alfred Hitchcock would say about half of Brian DePalma's filmography). But just because a film comfortably suits itself to the structure or style of a much-admired predecessor -- does that mean it must adhere to the same worldview as well?

I don't think anyone would argue when I say that Akira Kurosawa's 1954 epic The Seven Samurai is, indeed, the greatest samurai film ever made. The reasons are obvious. It not only captures, majestically, a bygone feudal milieu that shows the way civil strife leaves lawless savagery in its wake, but the film is a paradigm of action movie etiquette. The story structure is so iconic -- the rapid collection of role players for a common cause -- that it has been transplanted to all other cinema genres as well, from Oceans Eleven and Inception to The Replacements and Little Giants. The film's final sequence is a bravura display of action film staging and editing. It's relentless. Though it also leaves room for the exploration of cultural themes like honor, decency and sacrifice.

A bit like America's western gunslingers, samurai film samurais sit on a mythical pedestal of stylized super-heroics. They have a demigod reputation of otherworldly capabilities. They can cut down entire armies with one perfectly swift slash of a katana and they do it in the name of justice and dignity; they are massmurdering, kimono garbed boy-scouts. As exceptionally well made as Kurosawa's film is -- and as substantive as its themes may be -- it endorses the concept that samurais were more than human, and their battles were essential struggles that played out like biblical floods cleansing the earth of wickedness. Kurosawa had his points and made them well, but he didn't show war for what it truly was: gruesome, horrifying, wasteful.

Takashi Miike's film, "13 Assassins", is hardly in the same class as Kurosawa's masterpiece, but what it does is actually very interesting. It takes Kurosawa's model of samurai storytelling and makes it so shockingly brutal and horrific that it changes everything that we've come to think about the genre. The film's plot is intentionally close to The Seven Samurai, though instead of protecting a village the eponymous band -- twelve warriors and one sprightly goofball game-hunter (played by Yusuke Iseya doing his very best Toshiro Mifune impression) -- plan to ambush the royal entourage of the Shogun's son, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), and assassinate him. Naritsugu is a merciless psychopath who, in the film's first minutes, indulges in a number of sadistic escapades: using an entire family as target practice for his bowhunting skills, rape and dismemberment (you get the picture). To make a long story short, we want him dead maybe more than the samurais do. The whole film leads up to an epic, prolonged final showdown between the thirteen assassins and Naritsugu and his army of two hundred bodyguards.

I had my doubts about "13 Assassins" for a lot of its two hour running time. It's a curiously campy and incompetent film, at least formally. Many of the outdoor compositions looked television cheap. One scene with a herd of flaming oxen looked no better than Sci-Fi Channel-level CGI. The same goes for several explosions and falling horses. The screen directions get confusing in the simplest dialogue scenes. In an arbitrary moment the focus blurred wildly and then adjusted without any creative liability, simply due to shabby camera operating. The sound design is crudely accentuated. The clashes and shwings of the swordplay and thwacks of blades on flesh are distractingly and humorously hyperbolic. My conclusion is that "13 Assassins" is either a masterwork of faux-unprofessionalism or a very amateurishly made film.

Still, this wouldn't be the first time that a film's brilliantly affecting qualities surpassed its technical fecklessness. (Just watch Clerks). "13 Assassins" has a final act of unblinkingly powerful imagery. The film's exaggerated opening atrocities led to some chuckles, but no one was laughing comfortably in the finale as the camera deliberately surveys the day's carnage and finds amongst the crumbling huts, pools of blood, fire and smoke a number of contorted corpses who look strangely similar to the valiant men of Kurosawa's honorable opus. Where is the honor in this? That's what Miike is saying. Is the director paying homage to the great Japanese master in his re-evaluation of The Seven Samurai or is he calling him out? Probably both. Miike's provocative approach to his culture's mythical folk heroes is an unexpected smack in the face for an audience expecting to see a genre exercise and getting a condemnation instead.

Friday, June 24, 2011



"Submarine" treads some familiar ground. When the film's main character Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a mixed up Welsh youngster with a Beatles haircut, starts courting his sexy/sulky classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), we know he'll screw it up by Act III, and have to make amends by the fadeout. And at some point along the way he'll come of age. It's like the blueprint for every romantic comedy ever made, and with the added touch of adult lessons learned the script seems stolen from the stacks dropped off at Michael Cera's house daily. Yet "Submarine" is playfully vivacious and even unique despite its narrative banality. Directed by British first-timer Richard Ayoade and produced mostly in Wales, the movie has a filmic self-knowingness and an Indie-Rock aesthetic that feels European in its construction and Hollywood quirky in its execution. The result is something like a Michael Cera movie directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

The specks of New Wave confetti fall right as rain throughout the film's cloudy Welsh landscape -- a place where the sun stays screened all year by sheets of grey precipitation and the smog rising from coal factory spouts. Oliver Tate's small town is surrounded by beach, but you wouldn't dare swim in the freezing water; as he trudged across the sand to meet his beloved Jordana I thought a freeze frame like Truffaut's on Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows was imminent. On top of New Wave homage the film employs a perpetual voice-over that has the snarky ambivalence and charming naivete of Juno or Youth In Revolt's Nick Twisp. Like the adolescent drama-queen he is, Oliver fantasizes about his own death and smirks at the displeasure it would cause distraught, love-struck coeds. Only an egotistical, delusional and dejected teenager would find solace in such morbid contemplation. But these psychological tactics make Oliver Tate relatable, interesting and incredibly funny. He's also not a mere sulker. He's a sourpuss with a lot on his mind; he's got goals. To impress Jordana -- the class spitfire -- he bullies another student, overweight outcast Zoe Priest, even though it crosses his moral boundaries. When their "big night" arrives, Oliver sets the romantic stage with elan for the "passionate lovemaking" that'll be his V-card disposal session. Things get more complicated when his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor's) marriage hits the skids -- due to his mother's infatuation with the mystic next door (Paddy Considine). Oliver devises a scheme to remedy the situation, and even finds a moment to puke on the hood of the home-wrecker's car.

However, like Clueless's Cher, Oliver Tate is the kid with all the answers and none of them all at once. When it comes time to be completely selfless and do something just for Jordana, he chickens out. It's a decision that reminds us just how much of a child Oliver still is. But the movie -- with its vignette structure, fades to red and blue, music video montages -- feels postmodern; it's a blending of cinematic qualities -- qualities that were hip when Godard did them in the 60's and ones that are hip now (like moments reminiscent of Cera and Kat Dennings cruising town to hipster, Indie-anthems in Nick and Nora). And despite a small lag in the homestretch, the effect is hyper, hip and pleasurable on the film's own light, idiosyncratic terms. We may have seen it all before, but with such verve this familiar teenage-odyssey feels less done-to-death than done right.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8


The title of "Super 8", director J.J. Abrams new CGI summer extravaganza, is actually a cute ironic joke. In an age where a person can make a video on their cell phone, it's funny to think that, not too long ago, folks actually had to load 8 mm film into a hand-winded Bolex camera, or some other kind of clunky apparatus, in order to film something. The fact that the title of Abrams' film is Super 8, and the whole thing appears to be shot with an IMAX camera and then doodled on relentlessly with computer images; is a darling allusion to the concept that movies can be a magical medium on any format, as long as the magic derives from the most essential special effect in the world: Imagination.

It's all the more fitting that the film is about a Goonies-like gang of prepubescent auteurs trying to shoot the awesomest mutant zombie flick ever. The writer/director, who's as bossy as David Lean, is Charles (Riley Griffiths) and even though he's got the home-made light kit, the boom mike, the make up designer and the necessary will power to make a great film; he's gonna need "production values" if he wants to win a local film festival. His wish is granted when a midnight shoot at a train station turns into a most epic train derailment and explosive calamity. But what seems like an accident at first -- turns out to be a covert government operation involving the transportation of one of the CIA's best-kept secrets.

While happily immersed in the wonder of the supernatural, "Super 8" is sure to keep at least one toe in the real world at all times. The film's protagonist is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a sweet kid grieving his mother's death and dealing with the growing distance it's caused between him and his father, Deputy Jack (Kyle Chandler). One of the cleverest things about the movie is its self-knowingness. Charles' astutely realizes that without a wife for his zombie-hunting, detective main character, the audience won't give-a-hoot if some flesh-hungry, undead creature devours him. Abrams shrewdly takes his own advice and casts Elle Fanning (Somewhere) as Alice -- she joins the gang to play the wife, but becomes more tween love interest than anything else. Just in case we didn't care about Joe Lamb (or that special locket his mother used to wear), a recently deceased parental and a burgeoning puppy love are there to ensure our sympathies.

Though, I do wish we were a little more invested in Joe Lamb. It would have made the film's syrupy sweet final moments even sweeter. But "Super 8" has a lot of other things on its mind. Steven Spielberg -- a man who famously shot super 8 war films as a wee lad -- produces and J.J. Abrams is obviously smitten with his phenomenal cohort. Everything from kids on bikes taking on a whole occupation force of shady government stooges to a mysterious monster kept out of frame and out of sight until the last thrill-filled minutes, made me think of old Spielberg and his immeasurable impact on the industry. Yet the way Spielberg has the ability to make fantasy so palpable you can reach out from your seat and touch it, alas, remains merely an aspiration for J.J. Abrams.

But the beauty of Abrams' work in "Super 8" is that emulation is not only the name of the game, but also the heart of it all. Homage to George A. Romero and his fear-the-government, Cold War shtick, run rampant, both as a part of the kids' hilarious, "shoe-string", grind house wannabe; and as a part of the film's narrative fabric -- when amoral military phantoms quarantine their small Ohio town. Yet, somehow, Abrams' film comes off as neither parody nor pretentious pastiche, but a product of passion, and as the crashes thud and tears flow with an extra dose of loving exuberance, we can't help but be carried away by it. And that's the whole point: The kids have found themselves running amok in the big-budget, high octane movie of their wildest cinematic dreams. J.J. Abrams was once just like them and he remembers what it was like to be a kid dreaming of what he could do with a large crew and a studio budget. He may have since switched from super 8 to IMAX, but he hasn't forgotten that imagination is still the most magical resource there is.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

X-Men: First Class


Before "X-Men: First Class", the X-Men film franchise had almost entirely deflated. After director Bryan Singer left the series in 2003, the resulting entries, Last Stand and Origins Wolverine, were middling at best. Fox Studios has done the smart thing with the story's overly treaded ground (in fact, it's the same thing I do when a piece of writing just isn't working): They scrapped it! And started over from the beginning. They've brought in a new director, Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), a new tone, a new era, and an almost entirely new crop of mutant warriors. Luckily, the two who've made a return are, in my opinion, the best: Magneto and Professor X. And, being a prequel and all, we get to follow these two ideological nemeses from childhood to friendship to an even more action-packed falling out than Anakin and Obi-Wan.

I have to admit, when I first saw a pint-sized Magneto (then named Erik Lehnsherr) walking the wet dirt road to Auschwitz and an even punier Charles Xavier stalking his kitchen for a midnight snack, I thought I was doomed to endure an X-Men version of the Muppet Babies. But the adult counterparts replace these miniature genetic wunderkinds rather quickly. And in fact, the depiction of their youths is the easily the most important element to defining their characters. The teeny psychic Charles takes in a homeless, blue skinned shape-shifter named Raven (soon to be Mystique) out of the kindness of his ten-year-old British heart. Erik, at the same time, watches his mother get shot down by a Josef Mengele wannabe-type Nazi scientist, who takes an interest in Erik's ability to magnetize himself to all things metallic. From the get-go, we know why Xavier dedicates his later life to geniality and understanding, just as we know why Magneto dedicates his to anger and retribution.

By the time they're adults, Charles (James McAvoy) has become a geneticist at Oxford working to figure out the science behind his own altered existence. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on a global vendetta to eradicate all remaining traces of Nazi-dom, including the murderous Angel of Death who killed his mother -- a guy named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Since the two protagonists are only in their twenties, Vaughn and his screenwriters have a whole new (far out) milieu to work with. Charles eloquently hits on Oxford coeds with hilariously rehearsed Greg-Bradyisms like, "I think that mutation is pretty... groovy." And by the time he links up with Erik, the overarching conflict becomes the fight to stop global Cold War annihilation. Scenes in eccentrically over-decorated debriefing halls reminded me of Kubrick ("There's no fighting in here! This is the war room!"). And the subtitle, Super Secret Covert Base, made me think of Dr. Evil's underground volcano lair.

Despite the film's Holocaust portrayal (which was a little exploitative for my taste) and its ever-present ruminations on "being different", its tone is playfully close to those aforementioned films. Inside jokes about Xavier's hair and cameos by previous X-Men participators made "First Class" a lively semi-goof on its own mythology. Then Xavier starts recruiting mutants for a secret CIA program and a new "class" of adolescents shows off their powers in sequences of hilariously destructive frat-kid behavior. Other pluses: A fantastic cast that has Oscar nominees McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven) shining in roles balancing sprightliness and private contemplation. The film's acting trophy, however, goes to Michael Fassbender whose wrathful trance of a performance is so tactile it's warming.

"X-Men: First Class" moves at a splendidly energetic and enjoyable pace, but I can't help feeling like there's probably a better movie in there somewhere -- one with less characters, less banal and redundant dialogue about feeling like a freak (all the series' insightful themes are rendered effectively idiot-proof); and more discourse between Charles and Erik's polarizing viewpoints regarding the better and worse angels of our nature. As I've always seen the two characters as a representation of peoples' inclination to treat others as less than human (both in the small and the extreme). Charles believes in the possibility of redemption. But Erik was on the front lines during humanity's darkest hour and is not necessarily wrong for considering the world's cold treatment of what it doesn't understand. More than any previous installment "X-Men: First Class" needs to ask: Which side are you on?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


Has Johnny Depp sold out? After two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels -- including the dreadful At World's End -- I was still willing to cut Depp some slack. After debuting in Craven's oneiric slasher milestone, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Depp flew under the radar; appearing in oddball Indies like Jarmusch's confounding revisionist Western, Dead Man, or slice-of-life character studies like Hallstrom's melancholic, small-town-malaise piece, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? And anyone who saw Depp's heartbreaking performance as the taciturn, adolescent Frankenstein, Edward Scissorhands, back in the early 90's knows: The guy had major talent from the beginning. So why did it take so long for this quirky, Method-chameleon to break into the A-list? Was it the parts he was offered or the parts he chose? In any case, 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl made Johnny Depp into, well, Johnny Depp -- the human cash-machine that has given studios a license to print money. But even so, few could argue that Depp wasn't born to play Captain Jack Sparrow, the wonderfully egotistical, half-drunk anti-hero of the high seas. Not since Errol Flynn played Captain Blood has a pirate been so enchanting. So how can you fault a guy for picking the perfect role? And with the middling follow-up, Dead Man's Chest, and even the disgraceful trilogy completer, At World's End, there was still a sense that Depp needed to see the character through. Yet now, with the series' retcon reboot, On Stranger Tides, I'm not willing to be as merciful.

Of course it's not Depp's fault that the new Pirates flick is a sleepy, uninspired product of utter convenience -- everything about this film stinks of boardroom laziness. Captain Jack, still escaping hangings from the boorishly incompetent East India Trading Company, ends up a captive on Black Beard (Ian McShane's) ship as it cruises around looking for the fountain of youth. The Spaniards are after it too, as are the Brits led by the treacherous Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who's gone loyalist. The added spice is Penelope Cruz as Angelica, a swords-woman with sensitivity who happens to be an old fling of Captain Jack's, and she might be Black Beard's daughter as well. Along the way they stop for mermaid tears -- the final ingredient in the fountain's magic recipe -- and are swarmed by a carnivorous school of flipper-footed Victoria Secret models. That scene may be the only one with a hint of originality. And when Sparrow and Barbossa team up temporarily, embers of life become briefly visible. The rest is mostly going through the motions -- carriage chases, apathetically choreographed sword fights -- and, curiously, a lot of mulling around. At 137 minutes, having to watch Sparrow and Black Beard debate for five about who has to jump from a waterfall into a rocky lagoon is just goddamn agonizing. Add some sappy, romantic subplot involving a captive mermaid and a boy-scout missionary and it's risible.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is big studio Hollywood working at its most artless and passionless. So has Johnny Depp sold out? Probably. Is it his fault that the film is such a dismal bore? Considering he's perfect for the part of Captain Jack -- and that Rob Marshall's direction is bloodless and the script is hackneyed -- no, not really. But considering the fact that this money-grubbing, stick-in-the-mud of a movie would never have gotten made in the first place without his participation, then yes, kinda.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2


The return of Po, Jack Black’s ursine martial arts messiah from 2008’s wonderfully rambunctious yet wistful cartoon Kung Fu Panda, is as welcome as the return of a dear friend. We’re happy to see, right off the bat in the follow up Kung Fu Panda 2, that after three years of ass kicking as China’s much prophesized Dragon Warrior, Po still trains hard by stuffing copious vegetable dumplings into his bulging snout. A hefty tub of good-natured id, Po is driven by his animalistic impulse to gorge his insatiable belly. But that belly, a rotund hillock of black and white fur, is, and always was, the source of Po’s power (he is the Kung Fu Panda after all). And when he belly-flopped the whiskers off Thai Lung, the feline antagonist from the original film, it was an ecstatic moment of the Neo-Stopping-Bullets variety. For the creators of this animated action sequel to forget what made Po such an audacious hero the first time around, would be a disservice to the audience as well as the character.

Luckily, they didn’t. Since going from a daydreaming noodle shop assistant to an established master of fast-hands weaponry, Po’s head has stayed surprisingly small (especially for a panda). And what makes him such a lovable underdog, even still, is that he is, really, just a hardcore fanboy living in his own action-movie reverie, fighting alongside his boyhood idols: The Furious Five. Even while he’s leading The Five – Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Crane, Mantis, Monkey, etc. – on an adventure to stop a gun-toting, genocidal peacock named Shen from destroying China with an arsenal of cannonry, Po can’t help gushing, slow-mo and mid-kick, over the sheer awesomeness of his dream come true. It taps into the transient wonder of childhood; Po, wide-eyed and grinning in a stupor, wears the same expression a kid might if he was catching a hail-mary from Peyton Manning or fielding grounders with Derek Jeter. Without the wonderfully conceived character of Po, the film is merely spectacle, yet with him, it’s exuberant animated jubilation.

Kung Fu Panda 2’s Saturday-morning-cartoon plotting isn’t its strongest asset, however. Shen uses his firearms to try and eradicate kung fu and so Po, plus his crew, must go and inflict their own brand of Hi-Ya! gun-control. (Who says kid’s movies can’t tackle big issues?). Before he can do that, Po must find inner peace, which involves learning the truth about how he came to be adopted by his noodle-loving father goose. Like the first film, Kung Fu Panda 2 is fleet and absurdly well animated. Unlike the first film, its tone is sappy rather than spiritual. The original turned the line, “There is no secret ingredient” into a pregnant revelation. The sequel doesn’t reach that level of majesty. Yet Po, the film’s raucous centerpiece, overpowers the obvious flaws with utter force of personality. And since Kung Fu Panda 2 felt more like a mere episode than a fully rounded story, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next installment in this serial of tales about an anthropomorphized panda with a belly like an exercise ball and the mirthful spirit of a child at play.