Sunday, August 25, 2013

The World's End

Everyone knows there can be a gap between that which is quality and that which is enjoyable. Occasionally they go together but many, many, times, you have to accept that you just like something because you do, not because it is artistic, innovative or excellent. "The World's End" is silly, annoying and spins off in a direction that makes almost no sense what ever, it is my favorite movie this summer. I laughed more per minute during this film that I have at any film I can think of for the last four or five years. If you have a low tolerance for Simon Pegg, then you should stay away because he is the show entirely for the first half of the film. If you are like me however and find him oddly sympathetic in spite of himself, then you will be sucked in during the first minutes of the movie and you will practically cheer at the conclusion.

It would be easy to confuse this movie with this summers earlier "This is the End". Both of them feature a group of friends who party too hard and end up facing an unexpected Apocalypse. "The World's End" builds up to the fireworks more slowly and it has a much stronger sense of character. The actors here are not playing thinly veiled versions of themselves, they are characters in a story. There is some background established and we are not reliant on our knowledge of other movies to make sense of who each one is. Bits and pieces of the back story emerge as the film goes forward, revealing some surprises but mostly confirming our fears and expectations about these friends. Most of us have a friend like Gary, a guy who was full of himself once upon a time and has the same party hardy attitude that got us in trouble when we were kids. That Gary is able to wrangle up his four best mates twenty years after they fell out of contact is not a surprise. Even though people do change, relational dynamics often follow built in patterns long after they have worn out any sense of purpose. Four successful guys get wrangled into doing a pub crawl they all failed to finish twenty years earlier because the one friend who needs to fulfill this wish still has the same ability to push their buttons and exploit their weak spots. Gary is not even smart about it, he is simply following programming.

Everything in this opening section worked for me. The awkward re-connections, the "white" lies, the sense of guilt and obligation are all exploited in very funny ways. We discover that Gary has been exploiting some of his old friends for years and they did not know it. Gary is a force of nature, not automatically for good, but one that anyone in his path will have to deal with. Pegg delivers his lines like the cocksure, cheery, a hole he is playing. Timing is essential for a comedy and he has perfect timing for the comebacks, asides and outrageous arguments he spouts off on. Most of this gets even better when we get to the actual pub crawl and the alcohol starts taking effect. In the second act the other characters start to step forward and make their own comic contributions. They stop being foils for Gary's character and develop their own personality quirks that are just as amusing. Nick Frost, Pegg's partner in "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz", finally comes alive with some self righteous attitude and serious ass kicking skills playing Andy, Gary's closest friend in their youth. In the off the wall third act he is the main focus of the humor and he comes through just like Pegg does in the clinches.

The slow burning second act cheerfully breaks down what sense of normalcy there was for these friends. There are a couple of life lessons and sad stories injected to add a bit more meaning to the proceedings, but everything continues to be funny. The pacing of this film is a lot like "Hot Fuzz" because once we hit the third act all hell breaks loose and any sense that this movie was going to be about the bonds of friendship gets lost in a completely creative yet oddly derivative story. Look, this is a Mash up of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Night of the Living Dead", so how is it creative? All those parts come two thirds of the way in and they speed the film along to it's conclusion so fast that it is hard to know exactly where we left the tracks of sanity, and who cares anyway? So it makes no sense that a bunch of middle aged men are suddenly mixed martial artists, or that an alien invasion is confronted with a hysterical reductionist Star Trek type alien computer meltdown. It is done in a silly and entertaining way. The creativity here comes from taking the absurdity of the plot twist and having a damn fun time with it.

There are technical issues with some effects, and there are story issues that seem just awkward. I don't care. This is the second film in the so called  "Cornetto" Trilogy to turn a former James Bond into a villain, the music cues are fantastic, Rosamund Pike appears again in a Pierce Brosnan movie and she is mature beautiful instead of hot beautiful. The audience was laughing so much that I missed several lines so this experience will clearly need repeating. What better recognition can you give to a comedy than I cried my eyes out with laughter? Maybe I could have wet myself but I did not lose that much control and I'm still willing to say it was incredibly funny. Humor is subjective at times, maybe it won't strike you the same way it did me. If that's the case I'm sorry for you because this was the movie I enjoyed the most this year. It was original, familiar, and just so damn funny to me that I pity you if you missed the experience I had.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Frankly, Woody Allen has always been a hit or miss proposition for me. Early films were zany comedies, then there came the more mature adult stories and finally there is a long stretch of inconsistency. The last of his films that I saw and liked was "Midnight in Paris". Before that I had gone for almost fifteen years without seeing any of his work. It's not that I dislike his style, it simply is that he writes movies that have little resonance for me. The fantasy of "Midnight in Paris" worked for me and I suspect I might like "Match Point" because it has a thriller element. So you might ask yourself, "What was he doing at Blue Jasmine?" It is a brittle comedy that travels some very dark places and requires a lot of patience. The answer is I am blocked for the moment from seeing other films until my movie going partners are able to attend, and I needed a cinema fix. I could have stayed home and watched something I've seen before but a fresh film is just hard to turn down.

In the long run I may have been better off turning down the siren call of the theater. "Blue Jasmine" is not a bad film, but from my point of view, Woody Allen brought half a thing. There is an extensive number of incidents that make up the story, but the major events are all told in flashback so the movie does not feel like it has any narrative drive. There is so much character development that you never feel like the story is going someplace and then it turns out that it isn't going anyplace, it just sort of ends. With "Annie Hall" Allen told a nonlinear story but the transitions and incidents were all building to something. Maybe I can't remember the sequence of events exactly, but I could tell you what the story was about. I'm back to that old joke I use with my kids and I think I may have used on this site once before. "What's it about?" It's about a hundred minutes.

Cate Blanchett is a wonderful actress who is capable of creating real emotions on screen. This movie is basically an opportunity to show off her craft and she never seems to overplay it, even when the story calls for her to have gone over the edge. As one of two adopted sisters, she seems to be the one who should have the most solid chance at success. Of course life does not always work out the way it looks like it should and her character ends up living with her sad sack sister in San Francisco. Both women turn out to have self destructive impulses when it comes to the men in their lives. Each one makes bad choices but we don't always know why. As Cate's character Jasmine gets buffeted about by the life she chose, she also influences the life of her sister, despite the fact that they are not close and feel somewhat estranged from one another. Blanchett plays confident and doubtful in the same scenes, She gets a chance to have on screen breakdowns and deal with humorous but uncomfortable situations every few minutes. There is no fault in her performance, I'm just not sure what it is in aid of.

There are several actors who should be mentioned for the good work they do here as well. Bobby Cannavale who I liked so much in "Win-Win" a couple of years ago, plays the sister's current boyfriend. He is rough around the edges but he appears to be good hearted. Even the scenes that he appears in where he is something of a menace, you never feel threatened. Instead you might have some empathy for the guy. Exactly the same thing could be said about Andrew Dice Clay. If you had suggested twenty years ago that he would be working with Woody Allen, people would have laughed, but not in the way the "Diceman" would have wanted you to. His character is the former husband of Jasmine's sister and he has a legitimate amount of anger that gets channeled pretty well.  Louie C.K. shows up for a couple of scenes and his character seems like an opportunity for some happiness in a different direction. The resolution of his character in the story is handled by a phone call that may seem obvious to the audience but was a direct betrayal of the character as presented. Maybe that is the point. Just as Alec Baldwin turns out to be something less than he appears to be, I guess it is going to be a characteristic of all the men in the story. Peter Sarsgaard plays effete snobbery so well that it is easy to believe he could be a political animal from San Francisco. For someone who is not too fond of the Golden State, Allen gets this character exactly right. Probably because he is just a left coast version of a New Yorker.

The movie follows a lot of ideas and trails back on itself several times. There is a revelation that I suppose was designed to be shocking but felt exactly right and was not much of a surprise at the end. We haven't traveled very far from the start of the story when the movie is over. The status of the main characters has not changed, there is a bit more sadness about everyone involved and there was a slight amount of humor but it is largely smothered in the melodrama of the main characters. It feels a bit like six weeks of a soap opera condensed to a couple hours. Of course in a soap, the story never ends, and this movie feels the same. If you are an Allen completest,    than by all means enjoy. If you can take him or leave him like me, this would be one that you can safely leave on the table.

Friday, August 23, 2013

What Did I Do This Summer When Not At The Movies?

Laser Discs are an outmoded technology that never quite took off outside of the world of aficionados and tech geeks. They introduced many of the features that we now take for granted on a DVD or Blu Ray release. Such features would include a secondary audio track; either score, commentary or dubbing. Lasers also introduced Trailers, outtakes,  featurettes and a bucket load of other cool stuff.

Last Year at the Archlight theater in Hollywood, they had a fifty foot high poster wall with a light box for all the 80s posters they were showing off. Then next time I was in they had a sports movie themed wall. At the other locations they have similar displays. I love this idea and am jealous that I don't have the space or money to reproduce it with my own poster collection. I do however have those a whole lot of discs and now I can create my own theme walls using the Laser Disc covers.

Laser Discs never managed to spread out in a wide enough pattern to make them more cost efficient. At most, 2% of American homes had laser players, I am among those two percent. I still have almost 800 discs that were previously stored in two magazine racks in my home office (along with two big tubs on the floor). I currently have three players that are not working so they really are not doing much for me except reminding me of all the money I spent. Still, most of the Discs that I bought had beautiful covers or gate-fold jackets and it is a shame not to be able to see them.

To fix this issue, I have borrowed an idea from one of the Laser Disc stores I used to haunt back in the early 1990s. "Laserwave" was located in San Gabriel, about a mile from where I lived and they sold and rented Discs, so I was in there on a weekly basis. I always loved the way they had them displayed on the walls. Much of their business was karaoke based, being in a large Asian community in Southern California, but the displays were all movies. They had a unique wall system that I always admired. The thin shelves were fronted with acetate edging to keep the discs from slipping off and the shelf above had an acetate edge to keep the disc from falling over. You simply insert the disc under the top lip and then drop the bottom behind the lip on the lower shelf. It was harder to get right than I thought and it took more time as a result.

Here is my humble attempt to copy both the Arclight and Laserwave:

I anticipate being able to put up theme walls when I have all my discs sorted and the office back in working order, I'll try to shoot some of the KAMAD VLOG posts in front of the themes. Look for a horror wall in October, that will be the soonest I will have my stuff together.

By the way, if you have a collection of old LPs, this would be a great way to feature a large number instead of merely a few well chosen pieces of music art.

Unlike Siskel and Ebert, I don't have a balcony to close, so I'll just sign off and wish you happy celluloid dreams.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Kick Ass 2

Right off the bat let me say that there was no way that the sequel could live up to the magnificence that was the 2010 Best Movie of the Year (At least here on My site). The original Kick Ass introduced my favorite character in movies in the last ten years or so, and it featured a deliberately off the wall, in an appropriate way, Nicolas Cage performance. It had the most insane style and over the top characters and a solid hero story at it's center. The pacing and the whole comic book milieu was mixed in pretty perfect proportions. Kick Ass 2 would be lacking the touch of the original director, Matthew Vaughn, and Nic Cage's character doesn't make it out of the first story so you knew he was not going to be back. So how can you possibly try to match that first experience. The answer is that you can't. So you just try to make the best movie that you can out of the pieces that remain from your origin story. In my view, Kick Ass 2 manages to be a successful action comedy, that does nothing to embarrass the first movie and still entertains the heck out of those of us who love the characters.

One way that the story tries to compensate for the loss of the surprise factor in the first film is by introducing novel new characters to fill in some gaps. Mark Strong was a great villain, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse returns as Chris D'Amico, the son of Strong's character and the double crossing hero named Red Mist. Mintz-Plasse is never going to be anyone's nightmare villain. He doesn't have the look or the muscles to carry it off. In an early scene where he tries to make his new super villain, "The Mother F*****" a more viable adversary through training he gets pounded by his ring opponent. The screenwriter knows that he can never be the physical equal of the Dad, and tells us so right then. The "MF" is going to have to rely on hired muscle to extend his power and take vengeance on Kick Ass. Enter a series of nasty criminal types who are drafted into his crazy army of evildoers. The most memorable of which is a female former KGB agent that he dubs "Mother Russia". The mob that made up his Dad's enforcers is mundane compared to the nut jobs he tries to replace them with. The plot has a bit of a role reversal. In the original, the Cage character "Big Daddy" is the insane vigilante that the gangsters can't comprehend. Here, Chris and his evil army are the insane ones. They are not motivated by the average gangland objectives, they exist only to cause the havoc that the now crazy son is wrapped up in. The frightening part is not in how they dress up, that's just as silly as the hero side. The scary part is the willingness of the crew to kill cops, blow up public spaces and generally do what the nut job with all the cash wants them to do.

Kick Ass himself has matured and grown a little. He settles down into a routine of normalcy that is ultimately unsatisfying to him. The call to do right brings him back to the super hero ranks that have swollen with a lot of everyday people who want to fix the world. Some of them have gifts, some have only dreams but all of them have some determination. Just as the the bad guys have one memorable group member, the group that calls itself Justice Forever has an inspirational leader, the born again mobster who calls himself Colonel Stars and Stripes. Kick Ass connects with these everyday heroes and they try to make the world a better place. Inevitably there will be a clash between the two sides, and as usual, the side without any scruples would appear to have the edge. Dave Lizewski won't be able to retreat back to High School once the lines are drawn. The motivation for the final confrontation is a lot more significant than he had in the first story. It is different and one of the things that makes the tone of the movie quite  distinct from that earlier story. Dave's narration of the first movie puts us into a different position as observers. His voice was detached and ironic at times, in the current movie, his character seems much more the Kick Ass at the end of the first film, than the mild mannered geek he was at the start of the process. He has a pretty satisfying story arc considering that it is a comic book movie.

Despite the title of the two movies, Aaron Taylor Johnson's character is not the main hero. The true hero of both movies is little Mindy Mcready, better known as "Hit Girl". Mindy never really retired from the hero business, and when Dave discovers that he wants back in himself. There is another side of Mindy though that gets explored here. When she is taken out of action not by the bad guys but by a promise she makes to follow her Daddy's orders, she learns that evil starts somewhere and sometimes that somewhere is High School. It will seem like the sequences of Mindy discovering the cruelty of high school kids is a side track to the main story, but she has to go through some adolescence angst to mature into a more complete version of herself. That fact that she does so in such humorous, touching and vicious ways makes her character more important than ever. There are a couple of moments when the tough chick we know as "Hit Girl" is also the young and maturing Mindy. Subject to some of the same temptations and mistakes that other girls make. There are no doubt a million young girls out there in the audience (along with their parents) who have a wish fulfillment sequence when the queen bee gets her comeuppance. At that moment we know that the real "Hit Girl" will be returning with a furious vengeance and all will be right again, even if it takes a while. Her character can not have the same impact as the eleven year old killer we met a few years ago had, but she still manages to hold the screen and impress in all of the fight scenes.

A couple of ways the director Jeff Wadlow differs in tone with the movie can be found in the action sequences and the use of music. Vaughn's original film was full of whimsy and visual energy that was at times silly but utterly entrancing. Wadlow stages the action scenes very well but they lack the joyful nonsens in the first movie. The joyful ballet that was "Hit Girl" massacring an entire mob family is replaced with realistic action sequences, that emphasize the drama rather than the visual pyrotechnics of film that were found in the first film. The same thing can be said about the music. The house and rap music used in this film is fine and fits the scenes but it never tickles us in the same way that "The Banana Splits Theme" or the key notes of "A Few Dollars More" that remind us that we are watching a movie. There are not many cultural references in the film to bring in all the geeks who loved those touches in the first movie. They have been replaced by a more straight forward narrative. There are still some pretty over the top bits, like a shark tank or the resolution of Chris's Mom in the story but they are fewer. One of the most effective scenes is when Chris gets a lesson from his Uncle that pushes him completely over.   It's one spot where Mintz-Plasse doesn't chew the scenery and actually shows he can act a little.

I did not like that the Katie character from the first movie was so quickly disposed of, and I think I might have enjoyed a few more scenes of "Justice Forever" being lead by Jim Carrey with his maniacal eyed look. Still the film moves very effectively and seemed to be paced very well. The main threads that were hanging from the first movie got resolved and I feel we have been set to either enjoy another sequel or to leave these characters behind. I  for one would like them to come back in a couple of more years and give us some more ass kicking, but if it doesn't happen, I am pleased with the films we got. The first was brilliant in my opinion and this follow up is perfectly enjoyable and manages the difficult task of being satisfying even though it does change the nature of the story a little. If you are a big fan, stick around for a funny little stinger at the end of the credits.

Friday, August 9, 2013

We're the Millers

This is an R rated comedy, featuring Jennifer Aniston as a stripper, and the details on the rating read: "Rated R for crude sexual content, pervasive language, drug material and brief graphic nudity." Don't get your hopes up for that shot of Jen in the buff, it does not happen and the brief graphic nudity will do the exact opposite of turning you on. The story takes a funny premise, puts it into a typical story arc for all of the characters, and then throws in as many jokes at they could come up with that involve people repeating the phrase "WTF". It's a late summer comedy and it will be fine for adult date night but if you are looking for something unconventional, or consistently funny, or you just want to see Jennifer Aniston strip, be prepared for a disappointment.

Jason Sudeikis plays a low level pot dealer shanghaied into smuggling a whole lot of ganja from Mexico to Denver for his rich drug lord former college classmate. When he gets the idea to disguise himself as a family man traveling on vacation with the kids as cover. OK, that sounds like a promising idea. The problem is that to set up the concept, the writers have attempted to make everyone in the movie (with the exception of one character) into hipster malcontents. Almost everyone expresses contempt for the idea of a normal family life. In one early scene, the reliable and funny Thomas Lennon, plays an old acquaintance of our drug dealing hero, and gives every indication that his life pretty much ended when he got married. There is a very funny quote that comes when David, the dealer, describes to the stylist how he wants his hair cut. All of this subversion of the traditional life style is in aid of setting up the suppressed instinct that it turns out all of the maladjusted characters actually crave. Later in the film is a long sequence with another couple that strengthens the impression that married life is actually a kind of hell on Earth. The problem is that since they sell this concept so thoroughly in the set up, it makes very little sense when the turn comes. The sad story of how David and Rose, the Jennifer Aniston character, supposedly met is meant to create a bridge to that reversal but it is simply not strong enough.

There are a lot of random laughs in the film so it is entertaining. The problem is that the laughs often have little to do with the story. A corrupt and misunderstood Mexican cop creates some chuckles, and that is linked to the pot story. The plot line about incestuous kissing is just a joke that only fits the tag along plot development. Finally, there is the aforementioned bit of nudity which creates a big laugh but does so without really being part of what goes on. It is a stand alone joke that gets repeated later in the movie for another attempt to drain some laughs out of the audience. It works but it seems pretty lazy and there are a lot of opportunities that just seem to get lost because we are following some set ups that have little to do with the plot.

Aniston's costume design for the segments where she is playing a woman who is a "stay at home wife" work pretty well. Several outfits she wore reminded me of some of my own friends who fit that title, or at least have in the past. The strip club where she works at the start of the movie has the least amount of nudity you are likely to encounter in a "gentleman's club". Not only does Jen do a dance that might be considered a poor cousin of the dry hump, all the other strippers simply deliver punch lines, not characters. This may begin to sound like a gripe that there was not any T and A in the movie. I did not go to see it for that, but it is set in a world where that kind of behavior might be expected and no one behaves that way. It is just a constant reminder that you are watching a product put out to make you laugh, but that nothing in the movie should be viewed as real whatsoever.

Since Colorado is now one of two states that basically make marijuana a legal product, it might have made sense to include some humor based on the setting. Instead we get Sudeikis doing schtick to muggers that rob him, drug dealers trying to kill him and his boss who is threatening his life. If smart ass dialogue were all that were required to make a movie work, then this film would be a total success. Instead it feels like a pretty mundane film, using a set of risque characters and the only way that it could be sustained was to make tampon jokes. Admittedly, they are sufficiently disgusting and out of place as you an imagine, but they feel like the adult equivalent of a fart joke, they are old and tired and keep coming up despite the lack of humor. The characters are inconsistent and the plot can't sustain itself. There are funny lines and pieces of business throughout the movie but it seems like random humor, and not the "Airplane" kind. The line I laughed the hardest at was the name that the other married couple had for their vibrator. In context it was funny and if you can live with so hit or miss humor, than the movie is funny also. Of course I was in a pretty good mood when I saw this, you may be less forgiving.