Sunday, May 31, 2015
I understand the commerce behind a film like this. Big action, a big star, and over the top visual sequences make money. Look, I put down my twelve bucks so I guess I should not complain too much, except what does it say about me and the rest of humanity when we watch disaster porn? Are we confronting our fears and our own mortality or are we revealing in the destruction and enjoying watching millions of people die? I just can't anwser. I feel a little dirty but it is also such a stupid movie that I feel silly for feeling guilty, talk about mixed emotions.
Southern California is the only home I have ever known, and I know that we are all going to be very unhappy when the "Big One" does show up. I rode out the 1971 quake in Sylmar, the 87 Whittier Narrows Quake that killed my hometown theater, and the 94 Northridge quake which made the area sit up and beg. Every once in a while we get a good sized movement of the earth that reminds us that stuff is happening below our feet. This movie wants to bitch slap you into alertness and then make you care about five people while the whole west coast is going to hell in a handbasket. If anyone is better prepared as a result of seeing this, that would be a good thing. The problem is that this movie suggests that we are all pretty much screwed unless we have a helicopter, a plane and a boat at our disposal. Also, pack Dwayne Johnson in your EQ kit because mere mortals are not going to survive without this kind of hero.
The former "Rock" has been a movie star for fifteen years now. He is in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood, and he gets better as an actor each time out while keeping the charisma that made him a star wrestler before he moved over to the silver screen. He loads this unbelievably derivative story on his broad shoulders and powers though it as if it were Shakespeare. He does not play it camp and he does a credible job playing the hero that everyone will need in a disaster. If Liam Neeson and others are the Old Guy fantasy of competence, Johnson is right there with them, assuming the old guys look like Arnold Schwarzenegger reborn.
Take three parts "Earthquake", one part "The Towering Inferno", one part "The Poseidon Adventure", throw in a dash of "2012" and "The Day After" and you have this movie. Match it with state of the art visual effects to depress the hell out of anyone who remembers 9/11 and you will see what I mean. This movie is cheesy as hell but also sadly familiar. I spent hours watching tsunami videos after the Japanese disaster a few years ago, and I felt like a gawker at the scene of a car accident, but still not able to look away. The dramatic action scenes in this movie still manage to involve you because the main characters are likable and we have followed them through the whole story, but look around and there are a hundred other stories that end in tragedy every time our leads make it thorough ( which they would never do it this was real.)
Paul Giamatti is credible as a Cal Tech scientist, and he adds a little gravitas to the proceedings but the whole scenerio is so over the top that in the long run it does not matter. If you can swallow your self loathing and just load up on popcorn, you will be moderately entertained. If you are at all conflicted about the idea, then maybe you should wait for the next comic book movie, where it is easier to laugh off the ludicrious amount of destruction as just being a movie.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Five years ago, in a fit of pique because there was a three week break between the end of the regular semester and the start of the summer session, I decided to vent by creating a project for myself. I was going to have some time on my hands during the day and I decided to start a movie blog project. The original goal was to do a post every day for the summer, first by watching a film and then by providing opinion, history, and context to the experience. While some bloggers seem to thrive on a daily ritual, I don't always find it easy. My schedule changes, my moods range more directions than a herd of cats, and frankly, because I never learned to touch type, my composition was sometimes a chore designed more to reduce typos than to offer deep insights.
The original project ran from May 31 though Labor Day, September 6, 2010. There were 97 movies in the project that I posted on in that time frame, films from the summers of my youth, the 1970s. Most of them were pleasant revisits, a few drove me to distraction, but all of them forced me to think about the movies I see in more than just a passing fashion. When the project was complete, I discovered I wanted to keep writing and sharing my impressions, so by the end of 2010, the blog evolved into a more contemporary film blog, with occasional diversions back into the past. I decided that if I saw a film in a theater, I would post some kind of comment about the experience.
Since the start of 2011, I have reviewed or pontificated on all the new releases that I have seen, and there are a lot of them. I pay for all my theatrical experiences so sometimes I am selective, I don't see every documentary, indie, or foreign film making the rounds. Now let me completely contradict my claim about being selective, I see a lot of crap. If Jason Statham or Liam Neeson are are on the poster, there is a good chance I will see it. If it is a horror film with a theme, a director, or word of mouth good enough to get me into a theater, I'm happy to confess my weakness. I have seen all the Transformers movies, fortunately only two were in the time I was writing for the blog.
I like revivals of classic films, and special screenings of recent projects now being sold on Blu-ray and marketed with a one night only opportunity. If I can find "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Jaws" on a big screen within a fifty mile radius, I will usually be there. The American Cinematique at the Egyptian Theater and the "Cinerama Dome" at the Archlight in Hollywood are spots that I haunt, hoping for a chance to see something I have loved from the past in a real movie palace.
I have been fortunate to find new friends on line that share their enthusiasms about films and will listen to me when I am right, and disagree with me when they are wrong. ( OK, maybe the reverse also). There are James Bond Fans out there who are probably tired of me mouthing off on why their selection of the greatest 007 is wrong, or who can't wait to find some other obscure piece of Bond material to fetishize along with me. I've met a few of these folks in person, but most of them are a continent away, and they might freak out if I show up unannounced at their beach house or at Comic Com N.Y..
People have invited me to participate in a multiple blogathons, a round table or two, and even a podcast. I hope to continue in doing all of those things. I will probably create a podcast myself, and if you haven't yet visited the VLOG page, you should make a little time. I have a lot of fun when I post the video material and your impression of the voice behind this blog might change by seeing me in human form. The posts I did for Fogs Movie Reviews are still listed on one of the pages here, and "30 Years On" is not finished. There are a dozen more films for the project that I just got behind on, and then the page will morph into the site for all my retro material. If you are a WordPress reader, I have a doppelganger site at "Kirkham A Movie A Day" , for some people, following and commenting is easier if they are using a site that matches their own.
Anyway, I just thought I should commemorate the date and thank anyone who has come by any of the places I have played in over the last five years. Fogs, Eric, Keith and Michael, I especially want to thank you for the consistency of your on-line friendship. There are a dozen others that comment regularly or allow me to comment on their sites with enthusiasm and all of you are appreciated. Thanks, and expect another epic "Jaws" post in the near future, it is after all the 40th anniversary of that artistic achievement.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
On the way to the Theater this morning, we made every light between our house and the movie theater. It's almost three miles on a very busy commercial mainline, and there are at least a dozen intersections with traffic lights. We made every one of them. I thought maybe we should go to Vegas, but then it occurred to me that maybe it was a good omen for the film we were about to see. Nope. Not gonna happen. This remake of Poltergeist is as mundane and unnecessary as you thought it would be. Having the names of Sam Rami and Sam Rockwell associated with the film was enough to take a flyer on it, but it all just lays there.
The story is somewhat the same as the original, but instead of an upwardly mobile yuppie couple buying into the American dream, we have a downsized family making due with leftovers. There is no contentious but friendly next door neighbor in this movie. In fact the only other people not directly related to the story sort of look down on folks living in this neighborhood. The dearth of nearby residents is supposed to be explained by the fact that there are so many foreclosures in the neighborhood. That is the only way this film might compare favorably to the original, it at least has an explanation as to how these events could take place without anyone else in the area being aware.
Other interesting points about the movie, well Rosemarie DeWitt who plays the Mother in this film is married to Ron Livingston who played the Father in "The Conjuring". He definitely got the better end of that deal. It's not an improvement but it is an interesting twist, the spiritualist they bring in to help the family, instead of being a diminutive female Rambo with a Kewpie doll voice, we get a grizzled reality TV Ghosthunter who has an Irish brogue and a gruff disposition. My daughter had a good insight on this film. It would have played better if this was a case the TV guy was doing for an episode of his series as opposed to his agreeing to work this case in spite of the fact that the family did not want to be on TV. It would have played off the two genres against each other and left room for more surprises than we finally get with this fairly standard haunted house story.
Like the remake of "Carrie" from two years ago, "Poltergeist" does nothing to hurt the legacy of the other film. If audiences are unwilling to go back three decades to see the original, there might as well be a version that they can get themselves to. It's just sad to think that people believe the visual effects from then are inferior to the CGI of today. I'd disagree and the incident at the sink in both films would be a good way to make the comparison. The 1982 film was a lot more frightening with the practical make-up effects.
Sam Rockwell is playing a character who is less interesting and less heroic than the oddball salesman of Craig T. Nelson. There is one brief sequence, which has nothing to do with the story, that allows him to use his Rockwellisms and charisma. It is short and unfortunately, there was no dancing involved. The two young actors playing the youngest children in the family were very good. It was maybe a bit more interesting to give the son more to do but it is at the expense of the rest of the characters. The build up in the first film was intriguing with some moments of levity. This version crashes headlong into the action, and there is never a sense of wonder. It is all about fear. In the original, the clown doll sits like a ticking bomb in the scenes set in the son's bedroom. In this version, it is a ringing alarm from the very first moment it appears. The controversy over Spielberg's taking over direction from Tobe Hooper continues to today. It is safe to say he had nothing to do with directing this film.
Saturday, May 23, 2015
This movie is a mess. It has a dozen different strands of ideas that it wants to follow, it's tone is all over the place, and the rules of the story seem inconsistent. The idea of making a Disney attraction into a film is not of course new, but as a whole "land" is involved this time, I think maybe the stitching required to get it all to hold together is just more obvious this time out. George Clooney is a movie star that can't really open a film on his own without a strong premise, and he is invisible from this movie for most of the first hour.
Director Brad Bird has made some of my favorite films over the last fifteen years. He is capable of telling a coherent story but this one is just not quite there. You can see the ideas right there in front of you, tantalizing us with the notion that there is something deep and worthwhile in this experience. It just does not come together. It reminded me several times of the movie "Toys" with Robin Williams. There are things to look at, there are good performers giving it their all, but the premise is too fuzzy in the end to be anything more than mildly likable when it is all over. I ended up wanting to see the movie that they tell this story around, rather than the book ends that make up this structure. I think even the story of Casey, the young protagonist played by Britt Roberston, would have worked a bit better. At the end, the conventional issues all undermine the creativity of the imagination that the promise of "Tomorrowland" is supposed to hold.
The opening section that tells the back story of Clooney's Frank Walker was excellent. The setting at the New York World's Fair in 1964 is picture perfect. The Fair contained all sorts of advanced gizmos and concepts and a few of them are illustrated here. We never see the "Carrousel of Progress" but the song makes an appearance and promises us a great big beautiful tomorrow. Raffey Cassidy is an interesting young actress who may very well have been cast because of her resemblance to Angela Cartwright of "the Sound of Music" but more importantly Penny from "Lost in Space". Baby boomers will see her freckles and the dress she wears in those early scenes and think immediately of the time period being evoked. Casting here went a long way in setting the scene, I think even more than all the special effects. The kid who plays young Frank is also very well cast to give a sense of those hopeful, early sixties dreamers of the New Frontier. His answer as to why he made the jetpack he has brought to the Inventions Hall at the Fair is a great encapsulation of America's can do spirit. The contrast with the heroine's project, to keep the launch pad at Cape Canaveral from closing down, is a little heavy handed but it is clear. We stopped being dreamers.
So I'm settling down for an uplifting movie about how we lost our way and might get it back again, when evil robots try to kill the pretty little science terrorist, and then they disintegrate three police officers out of nowhere and do it with a creepy mechanical smile. Wow, this is a PG rated family film? It features the same kinds of blue guts splattered we saw in "The World"s End" only from humans rather than robots. Watch out for the sudden car accident that also runs over a little girl. Nothing says family entertainment like that. Suddenly our whimsical fantasy film has become an action picture complete with a pint sized Terminator to lead us to the resolution. By the time Clooney comes back to the screen, the film feels completely different. The pursuit of the two science dreamers across different dimensions includes dismemberment of the robot pursuers in several grim but amusing booby traps. Then it is followed up by a Coke joke. The story meanders around trying to show us background material, but this is one of the few times I can think of where an exposition laden conversation between the two leads might have helped the movie move forward rather than slowing it down.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Post Apocalyptic stories have been a go to film genre for me since the glory days of the 1970s. I guess since "Planet of the Apes" ultimately counts in this category, technically I have been hooked since 1968. I really loved stories about a group of survivors, struggling against the environment and other treacherous obstacles in a world that has changed dramatically. "Damnation Alley" , a not very good film, featured a cool vehicle with a rotating set of triangular wheel axles. "A Boy and His Dog", mined sex and loneliness and survivors in ragged clothes and armed to the teeth for it's entertainment value. None of those movies prepared me for the experience of first seeing "The Road Warrior" in the summer of 1982. In the rest of the world it was "Mad Max 2", but here in the States, it was a stand alone film that introduced a new film maker to a much bigger audience. Action movies have not been the same since.
Just as in 1985, when my most anticipated Summer Film was a sequel to the "The Road Warrior", 2015 brings on a sense of deja' vu. "Fury Road" has taken a long route to get here, but it has arrived with the kind of force that you would expect. This is a take no prisoners action flick that grabs you with a strong stunt sequence in the first two minutes, followed by a foot chase and combat fighting within five minutes, and in about ten minutes the rest of the chase begins. This is a chase film that goes on for two hours and has maybe three segments when the chase pauses, not for long, just enough to get some exposition in and then back on the road. There are some new gruesome twists on the survivor story. Factory farming will be seen in a whole new light next time you open a bottle of milk. The future is a depressing place if you are not in control of the power, and Max our titular hero is close to powerless at the start of this story.
The vultures that preyed on the weak in "The Road Warrior" and created a twisted economic system in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", have evolved into a extended family cult of malignant children of the deformed patriarch of Immortan Joe. For reasons that become obvious early on, a set of women flee his power and Max becomes part of the exodus by accident. The father figure god is unwilling to give up his possessions and so begins an elaborate pursuit by super charged dune buggies, modified big rigs, and and hundreds of Warrior Boys, convinced that their death will result into admission to Valhalla at the feet of their demi-god father. The two previous films in this series, thirty and thirty-three years old, spent most of their time building up to the climactic chase. This movie is all chase and it sustains the chase through a series of set pieces, plot twists and brilliant design that will keep you hanging on from the moment it begins. Plot is thin but the action is thick and the visualization is visionary. Renegade clans in the outer desert are encased in vehicles that resemble porcupines. The washed out white skin of the Warrior boys make them appear to be an army of spooks, descending on the pursued from all angles. The grimacing regulator that Immortan Joe wears becomes a death mask that follows the heroes from their nightmares to the waking world. There are spectacular crashes and innovative weapons and a disturbing cult of death that brings them all together. Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron, seems appropriately named. She is without humor, and determined to save her group of women. Her strategy is to run and keep running and anything that tries to slow her down needs to be mowed down. The war carriage she drives is a moving fortress that is vulnerable to attack only by having overwhelming forces swarm the wagon. Even then, it turns out that she has a secret weapon she herself did not know about, Max.
I have nothing negative to say about Tom Hardy. I think he was well cast and fits the character like a glove. The two criticisms I have of the film do center around Max however, so Hardy may end up a little worse for wear based on my assessment. As great as I think Hardy might be, he does not have the visual charisma that Mel Gibson radiated off the screen in 1982. If you have not seen those earlier Mad Max films with Gibson, I suggest you wait to do so until after you see this and then the comparison that inevitably ensues will not be nagging you through out the film. The character Max is supposed to be cryptic, but as written here, he feels impenetrable and we can't quite commit to him as we might want to. Maybe having to play a second leading role with his face covered by a mask for larger parts of the film is the thing that holds back my full endorsement. Nicholas Hoult on the other hand is surprisingly compelling as a Warrior Boy in the right spot at the right time. His character had more dimension in the nearly characterless plot than anyone else. Hardy is stoic, Theron is fierce but young Mr. Hoult gets to play despair, joy, confusion and be disgustingly winsome at times.
The action and explosions and fights are choreographed wit a frenetic pace that stays involving for long periods at a time. Director George Miller invented this kind of Apocalyptic mayhem with the original Mad Max, now he has a budget and enough time to see this vision play out in the grandest scale possible. I am now willing to cancel his debit to me for the irritation that "Happy Feet" brought to me. There is enough credit on his ledger from this film to balance out any more dancing penguins that happen along.
Saturday, May 9, 2015
This was a very nice surprise, a science fiction film without any explosions, space flight or aliens. This is the sort of story that harkens to the days of thoughtful imagination contained in works by writers like Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. The story sets up a question and then follows a path as the question gets answered from the author's point of view. While there are some nice special effects, most of the drama and suspense and energy of the film stems from the questions and the answers that it makes.
I can see a number of similarities to the film "Her" from a couple of years ago. Both stories feature a winsome man confronting a form of "A.I." and losing themselves in the process. The idea of artificial intelligence had been around since the advent of computers back in the 1940s. Thinking machines are a part of "Forbidden Planet", "2001 a Space Odyssey", and pretty obviously "A.I." Most of these stories feature a foreboding sense of drama since human beings are forced to confront our own potential inadequacies and extinction. "Ex Machina" does this without the end of the world fireworks that sometimes are demanded of this kind of speculative fiction. That does not mean however that everything feels safe in this film, it doesn't.
Oscar Issac plays Nathan, a Steve Jobs like genius programmer who lives as a recluse but is admired by his employees at the search engine tech company he created. He has arranged for programming whiz Caleb, a nicely cast Domhnall Gleeson, to spend a week with him in his scientific retreat, located in a Northern Wilderness, hundreds of miles from civilization, in order to participate in a test of his most recent breakthrough. While at first it might seem that Caleb was chosen for his knowledge, that turns out to be only partially true. As much as this story is about Artificial Intelligence, it is also about the invasive mining of information by users of the internet. Those folks who are paranoid about what the NAS is doing with their e-mails should be looking no further than the search bar on their own computers for the real dangerous data mining. At least we know the agenda of the government, but do you know what it is that Yahoo and Google want from you?
The lovely Alicia Vikander is the female robotic manifestation of the A.I.. She is only partially there for most of the movie but her face is enough to hook the young programmer. The test of the A.I. often seems to be going in multiple directions at any time and the tester and the test taker frequently switch roles. Young Miss Vikander is having a good year in 2015. I saw her in "Seventh Son" back in February and she is due back again in this summers "Man From Uncle" (which I am all over). There are basically three main speaking parts in the film but there are a couple of other secondary characters that will manage to both evoke sympathy and fear by the time the movie is over.
A film that asks big questions is something that people should talk about with each other in face to face interactions. The conversation on these questions would give too much of the story away for those who are interested in seeing the movie. The answers that the screenplay provides can be disturbing when you think about the implications of what you have seen. If ultimately, the human race is destined to be supplanted by creatures of it's own creation, I worry that we may leave out some of the best stuff in ourselves that is worth preserving. Maybe I am just nostalgic for the kinds of things that I knew before; a good book, a good joke, the record store or library, but progress changes all kinds of things and often not for the better.
Saturday, May 2, 2015
I can't imagine anyone would be encouraged to see or discouraged from seeing this movie on the basis of any film goers comments. This is a movie that sort of demands a first hand experience from anyone who is interested. It is likely to be the biggest film of the year, there is a good chance that it will be one of the biggest films of all time, and critical assessment by professionals or amateurs is not going to change that fact. So, that having been said, let me weigh in on the film and if anyone wants to talk about it, I'd be happy to go into greater depth. As of this moment I can say it is a terrific popcorn film that has moments of greatness. It is also overstuffed and convoluted to the point that unless you were to write a near synopsis of the story, it is still not likely to be very clear.
A few problems that I had with it to start with and then we can get to all the good stuff that makes it worth seeing. "Age of Ultron" is a continuation of the concepts in the first Avenger movie but we have had four Marvel Universe Films in the time period between and many of the other films have pieces of business in them that play small parts in the story and actions displayed here. I know these are comic book tales but the way that events speed through, get resolved and a new set of threats pops up without much establishment is a little frustrating. the stand alone films (with the exception of the IronMan movies) have generally taken their time building up a set of characters, revealing a plot or plan slowly and then the movies get to the action stuff in the last third of the film. This movie feels like the third act of a bigger story, but not necessarily the story we have been watching in the other movies. I'm glad that Pepper Potts does not show up and impersonate Ironman, but the end of that film seemed to be moving away from Tony Stark as hero and center square. Yet that is exactly what continues in this film, with a twist on his intentions that is being reworked and repeated over and over again in the films he is featured in. He is a conflicted War profiteer who loves and loathes his job and he creates as much havoc as he solves. When you arrive at the end of this film, we play out the same scenario again, and everybody sees this except him. Ironskull might be a better nickname since he seems incapable of learning from his own mistakes. I have said many times that "Experience" is the only teacher that some people will listen to (including my oldest child) but Stark is not capable of listening to experience at all.
The opening of the film features a battle sequence at a fictional castle in a fictional country with characters that may have been in another film but if they were, it was for a nanosecond. The Avengers are on the attack and it is hard to believe they would be slowed down by the conventional forces they face after the alien invasion they repelled in the first movie. Faster than you can say "Who the heck is that?" the main bad guys appear to be disposed of and the secondary mutants "Quicksilver" and the "Scarlet Witch" are introduced as traumatized volunteers in another super soldier program that is "Hydra/SHIELD" based. The fight is exciting although the CG animation in the opening actually looked noticeable for this sequence. It worried me but the rest of the movie settled down a little. The money shot of the Avengers in action in the first movie, waited until the third act. In this film it is almost in the third minute of the movie.
Now that those issues are out of the way, here is some of the good stuff. Ultron, the A.I. creation of Stark (with a little push from the Tesseract), is played perfectly by the voice work of James Spader. His tone and wit are dry and the moments of high camp drama are delivered with suitable venom and at times anger. The script use of the song from Pinocchio is exactly right and sets up a macabre attitude whenever the Avengers encounter one of his many forms. While the visuals might be a bit confusing as to which robotic character has the true Ultron persona at any time, Spader manages to make it work with the right amount of cynicism and philosophy.
Once again, Captain America is a standout character that manages to influence the group productively even though he is not the smartest, strongest or most cunning of the lot. He manages to be the butt of a joke about language use that someone of my generation can appreciate, even though I'm one generation behind him. His character works well with all of the other characters and in the fight scenes he manages to stay relevant because of that. He also has the high ground on ethical issues and seems to be the voice of reason much the way Tony Stark is an exuberant puppy dog willing to try out everything.
Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, gets a better part this go round and his interaction with the the Scarlett Witch near the end of the movie is one of the few pieces of drama that works in the story, while everything else is in a rush to show us what is next. I don't know that the background story he is featured in is necessary, in fact I'm pretty sure it could be cut and no one would really miss it. This would have been a place to go in a lower budget stand alone movie with his character, but I get the impression that those kind of films will not be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.His character has the most interaction with the new Avenger characters and there is a pretty good payoff for both of those figures.
There is a lot of humor in the film and I suppose because it is comic book based, we should expect that. Everyone has a one liner to throw down and most of them hit the funny bone but they do tend to take away from any sense of danger or drama that is going on. Another new character is introduced late in the film. It's nice that the actor who has been in most of the earlier films gets a chance to show up on screen, but it was confusing and rushed and not altogether certain that the character is reliable. Ultron's plan for global eradication of humans is an interesting one, but like so many other elements of the film it is rushed. The story is a little more coherent than that of Furious 7, but both films are designed for visceral visual junkies to get a fix from. Avengers: Age of Ultron works more effectively because the universe it operates in is contained in the fantastical galaxy of super heroes, aliens, and technology.
The Winter Soldier", "The First Avenger" and "The Avengers" did. I commented in my review of "Guardians of the Galaxy" that I did not need to see Peter Quill and Tony Stark trading barbs with one another. After this movie, I can see it happening, I still don't think I will like it. Hope you all enjoy the film, I know you will see it whether you read this or not.