Thursday, July 25, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

So, yeah, another Star Trek movie. We tend to see the blockbusters semi-reluctantly, and usually after they've gone to the bargain theater, you may have noticed and, well, this is one of 'em.

This one continues the reboot from the 2009 version, and it's much like that one, and kind of curiously references the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan. JJ Abrams again directs, and the cast, which is probably the strongest aspect of both films, is back, spreading the thin screen time between them.

The reboot also continues the tradition of taking elements of the original and doing whatever the hell it feels like with them.

Chris Pine and Zach Quinto are reprising their roles as the original slash-fic duo, with Karl Urban continuing his marvelous homage to DeForest Kelly. Simon Pegg is great, of course, as Scotty and Anton Yelchin and Harold and Kumar's better half are barely there as Chekov and Sulu, respectively.

One of the strong points of the movie is maintaining the hookup between Uhura and Spock, with Zoe Saldana adding a lot of fire and excitement to what's otherwise basically a sausage-fest. Benedict Cumberbatch rounds out the cast as the mysterious and menacing...uh...menace.

So, the cast is good, and the story is reasonably interesting, in its semi-recycled way. The action is also pretty good, though the big action set piece at the end gets old before it's over. I dunno, I pretty much forgot it right after seeing it.

My companions enjoyed it, more than I, and I've never been into the Trek thing, so take that into account. But right after seeing this, I heard tell of this book, Save The Cat, and how the Bigs are using it to map out movies to the beat.

It certainly explains a lot. It's not so much the obvious cliches, like the heroes moment of darkness at the end of act 2—that's all pretty standard stuff—as it is these long action set pieces that grind the story to a halt, and are at least as predictable as any old Oater serial.

Basically, I think you have good moviemakers (and Abrams knows what he's doing) breaking the rhythms of their films up to conform to this external idea. I don't even think I object to the sameness of it; it's just the whole putting-stuff-in-where-it-doesn't-belong that gets to me.

As the Boy commented after one of the summer blockbusters, the action set piece is to modern films what the sex scene was to films of the '70s: Mandatory, pointless and kinda dumb.

Any way Into Darkness wasn't bad, as far as these things go, it's just that these things aren't going very far these days.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

OK, I'm going to start by telling you how wonderful this documentary about backup singers is, but then I'm going to wrap it up by taking a dump all over it. Just be forewarned.

This is the story of the black choral singers who emerged from during the rock 'n' roll years and provided a lot of the character and finer qualities of music of the past 55 years.

The movie starts by describing the transition from the all-white backup singers predating rock 'n' roll, and then how the kind of gospel, preacher sings/choir answers format began to permeate popular music and become the in thing.

The primary focus of the film is on Claudia Linnear and Darlene Love, who were big in the '60s and '70s before musical tastes changed and their careers petered out, and secondarily on Judith Hill, an up-and-coming singer who has to struggle between doing backup and establishing herself as a solo artist.

There are many others mentioned and features but, perhaps fittingly, I've forgotten their names (though not their voices).

The anecdotes are punctuated with interviews with many of the stars who used their talents over the years, like Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow and Sting, who comes the closest to truth by admitting to being somewhat befuddled by what makes success. Destiny, he says, and perhaps that's a good word for it.

After all, you must be gifted, as these people all were, and you must work hard, as these people all did (and do). Then you must also be lucky, and in many ways, they all were. But last, you must really want to be a star, to the point where, perhaps, you sacrifice your soul in the process. (Not that you have to sacrifice it, but an unwillingness to do so is going to be a barrier.)

So, what did we learn? Phil Spector was apparently a psycho long before he murdered Lana Clarkson. Darlene Love, who got screwed by Spector over a Christmas song (that he released under a different girl band's name because, you know, it was really a Spector album anyway), took a few years off to clean houses, then came back (to a degree) to sing on Letterman every Christmas and to take a supporting role in the original Lethal Weapon.

Oh, what was cool was that I had just tweeted, prior to seeing this, this great clip from The Concert For Bangla Desh where Leon Russell does a medley of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Youngblood" and I said, "Listen to the call/answer between Russell and the backup singer"—and said backup singer turned out to be Claudia Lennear!

(I'd link the clip here, but it's been pulled by Apple Corps, which I'm sure is exactly what The Beatles had in mind when they started that label.)

You can't say enough good things about Lennear's singing ability. It is otherworldly. It's Barbra Streisand quality, except I never wanted to punch Lennear.

This is a bit of a hagiography, of course, and that's fine. The closest that it comes to challenging anyone is when Lennear says she never set out to be a sex symbol and they point out that she posed for Playboy. She just laughs and blushes a little. (Lennear was known as "Brown Sugar, and consorted with both Jagger and Bowie back in the day. And she really epitomized the "black is beautiful" aesthetic of the '70s.)

The weakness there is that we don't get much insight into things. It's great as a stroll down memory lane—even for a guy like me, who doesn't know much of the music—and it's entertaining in itself, as both The Flower and The Boy enjoyed it, and they knew maybe one or two of the songs. (The Flower knew "Thriller" and presumably The Boy kinda-sorta knows it.)

But when they stroll through the list of '70s backup singers who had solo albums (that all flopped) there's very little discussion or insight into why. (That's when Sting floats the "destiny" idea.) Though as they were panning over the albums playing clips, it didn't strike me as surprising: There was nothing memorable, musically, in any of it.

The '70s was a peak for generic music that rewarded image more than musical skill. Modern day is probably much worse, with the autotuning and all that. Which leads me into my rant.

First, the film features an actual damnable "critical race theory" professor from USC, and he's there to talk about sticking it to The Man, as needed. The White Man, of course. This is always unpleasant at best, and grossly hypocritical at worst.

Merry Clayton sang backup on Lynyrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and this was framed as showing the White Man how great and indispensable these backup singers were, something which, I would guess Lynyrd Skynyrd knew, given that he asked for her in the first place.

You did it because it was a paying gig, and Skynyrd wasn't racist. Or they were racist and you're awful. Pick one. Don't pretend to be making a statement.

The elephant in the room, however, is this: The movie begins with a triumphal celebration of all these black gospel singers crowding out the white girls who had come before. The black girls couldn't read music, but they could spontaneously harmonize and riff, which was more suited to the music of the time.

Then, the movie ends with a lamentation about autotuning and how the industry doesn't respect talent any more. You suppose any of those white girls in the '50s had talent? Or were the impulses of a youth-driven culture more important than, say, the ability to read music?

In other words, it's completely un-self-aware, like most Baby Boomer-oriented stuff. History began in the late '50s, the culture of the '60s and '70s was the best, and any deviation from that is just horrible.

Yeah, I sound grumpy, because the message is one I'm tired of hearing. But it's not a hard thing to look past, and I recommend you do. It's a good movie.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Purge

I was of two minds regarding The Purge, the new thriller flick about people in an idyllic future who endure one night a year where all law is suspended. If it were predominately science-fiction, I probably wouldn't have gone to see a movie with such an amazingly stupid premise. But as a horror flick, it had a lot of potential, since the premise is barely significant against the execution.

And I nailed it, which I guess is some comfort, given that the movie is a really fine action/horror/thriller stuffed into the most preposterous and ill-considered science-fiction premise since In Time.

As a result, the Boy and I were somewhat split, with him really liking it (better able to overlook the silliness) and me thinking it collapsed at a couple of points under its own absurdities.

The good stuff is really quite good. Ethan Hawk plays James, a well-to-do suburbanite who sells defense systems for The Purge, including discovering on the day of The Purge that he's the #1 sales guy at his company. The movie avoids making him a villain, or even much of a jerk, except insofar as the whole system is corrupt and he's part of it.

Lena Heady plays his wife, Mary, and she does more acting in the first fifteen minutes than everyone else combined. Not, like, BIG acting, just that she goes from being the concerned mother/beleaguered wife/concerned mother within just a few beats, and her carriage and demeanor and speech all changes slightly depending on whom she's interacting with. She ends up showing a lot of range by the time the movie's out.

Adelaide Kane plays Zoey, the bitchy teen daughter with the bad boy boyfriend who sneaks around to see her behind the folks' back, and who can't get enough busting her dad's chops.

The son, Charlie, is played by Max Burkholder who recalls a young Christina Ricci. (I say this without snark; there's a similar dark complexion and roundness to the face.) Charlie is the one who has the most doubts about the whole affair, and who endangers the family by letting in someone being hunted by group of Purge maniacs.

So, these relationships are well done and not portrayed cartoonishly. This is good.

There were a lot of ways this could have gone, and the movie doesn't always take the unexpected way out, but there were a few good twists all through. Also, in the more by-the-numbers part of the movie, there is a great deal of suspense, mixed in with some jump scares, and a truly fine fight scene that impressed both The Boy and I.

In other words, The Purge doesn't pick a technique or style and stick with it: It switches from dystopia to haunted-house to home-invasion, and so on, in a manner that keeps the proceedings feeling fresh.

The problem is that when it switches into sci-fi dystopia, it's not just silly, it's stupid and really virulently anti-American in a way only a Chomsky fan could love.

The premise is that ten years in the future "The New Founding Fathers" have instituted this purge and it made the country a dramatically better place. There's no crime, except this one night. Unemployment is 1%. Poverty is eliminated. All at the cost of this one night.

Well, much like Minority Report or Demolition Man, if we're to believe the narrative, that's a pretty good tradeoff, even though the movie clearly wants us to eschew the premise by telling us that "the poor" suffer the most on this night because they can't afford protection.

Well, wait, did this eliminate poverty or not?

And if you asked poor people if they could live their lives unharassed for 364.5 days out of the year in exchange for having to defend themselves for twelve hours, would they not agree? Hell, everyone would.

Of course, this is silliness. A substantial portion of crime is poor impulse control. Both short term, as in wanting to kick someone's ass who badly needs it, and long term, as in not planning ahead for one's needs and having to find shortcuts to get out of messes.

The follow-through is also dumb: If  you know that one night a year, everything goes, do you build yourself an entirely defensive structure (as they do in this movie) or do you get some serious ordnance to take out anyone who threatens you? Nothing in this defense system is electrified, fortified with guns or explosives, no boiling oil nor even crenels from which to shoot the variety of guns the family owns.

Also, it's clear that The Founding Fathers are some sort of nod at the Tea Party. The Emergency Broadcast System actually ends with something like "May God be with us all." Right.

And the MacGuffin in this film is a homeless guy. But, as I pointed out to The Boy as the movie showed B-roll of The Purging, all those people rioting and killing? They all gotta be at work the next day! (1% unemployment!)

And who the Hell manages to be homeless in a world with 1% unemployment. I mean, homeless, and also clean, well-spoken and ethical, as the guy turns out to be.

The villains are, of course, rich people. All of them. They're all villainous and they're all rich. There's not even a middle class bad guy in the lot. And poor people are only victims, never perpetrators in this imagining.

On the one hand, you want to give writer/director James DeMonaco for recognizing that you can't completely will away people's dark sides, no matter how cheerfully the government decrees it to be so. (Though as I've mentioned, the very acknowledgement underscores the fact that the premise is stupid.)

But on the other hand, it's gross bigotry to suggest that pretty much ALL rich people would engage in violence if they had a free pass. (Violence, as I've noted many times, is not like sex. It's seldom very much fun, it's messy, it's dangerous and people aren't really all that inclined to be violent.)

Sometimes this failure to grasp basic human nature, this ham-handed demonization of The Other (even though you know DeMonaco is rich by 99% of the population's standards) results in some unintentional comedy. (The audience laughed. Loudly.)

Tough time recommending it just as is. (Note that some critics felt it wasn't preachy ENOUGH.)

And, as noted, this is a rip off of an episode of the original "Star Trek" series, "Return of the Archons". But there, a computer was mind-controlling everyone. Eh. I'd have a hard time recommending that episode, too.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Only God Forgives

So, having left the last pic without really feeling our Gosling needs were satisfied, we trundled on down to the Encino Laemmle to see Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn's follow up to Drive. Though they are not related.

Though you couldn't be blamed for thinking they might be, given the whole Ryan Gosling underworld thing.

On the other hand, that covers most of Ryan Gosling except Crazy, Stupid Love. (Wait, what did he do in that movie? Boost jewelry stores?)

I digress. However, that's nothing compared to this movie. They're calling it Lynchian, and I suppose there's something to that. The Flower had a hard time following it. The Boy followed it all right but thought they overdid it with the artsy stuff.

I could see that, though I like that sort of thing. My reaction was more akin to my reaction to watching "The Evil Dead". Parts of it you just think "Wait, are they serious?"

This is basically a tribute to Asian revenge flicks, as it concerns the Muay Thai-training Julian (Gosling) whose brother rapes (and possibly kills, I can't recall) a girl, only to be killed by the girl's father. The father, in turn, gets a visit from the otherwordly Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, the priest in the last scene of The Hangover II) a detective (I guess) who extracts a penalty from the father as a reminder to the father that he has three other girls he has to take care of.

Life lessons are tough. Especially when you're a parent.

That's the set up. The movie starts in earnest when Julian's insanely evil mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up wanting the father dead, and expecting Julian to wreak havoc all around.

KST is worth the price of admission alone. I have to say. When she's not threatening Julian with murder, she's coming on to him or maybe just waxing nostalgic over the size of his late brother's member. Julian hires his favorite hooker (the flawless Yayaying Rhatha Phongham) to play his girlfriend and the result is something like Wes Craven directing an episode of "Dynasty".

This is all building up to a confrontation between Chang and Julian, though there's no doubt how it's going to turn out. The two are psychically linked, and the scene of their confrontation is played out in Julian's head several times in the movie. To the point where it finally happens, you're sort of not sure it actually happened this time.

Gorgeously shot, though about the 15th time someone was framed between a high vertical boundaries (doorway, long hall) I was kind of thinking "OK, I get it, I get it! We're all...uh...squeezed? Between something? OK, I don't get it, but enough already!"

Chang does Karaoke.

I don't know. It meant something. He was kind of an angel. An angel of death.

He could draw a Thai "dha" (sword) from behind his back when clearly there was no sword in the previous scenes. (This is deliberate, not a continuity error, I have no doubt.) Also, he floats around (The Boy observed he did not swing his arms when he walked) with a couple of beat cops who watch him slice people up.

Well, look, the theater was so packed, the only three seats were in the first row, and they were not together. So this guy has some fans.

Leaving the theater, I noted that virtually all of them were 20-something males, with a few girlfriends thrown in here and there. (And treat yourself to the Lifetime channel, or whatever, for being such good girlfriends, ladies.)

I dunno. It's self-consciously artsy. One thing about Lynch is that I never felt like he was trying to be weird. He just is. He's trying to tell a story using the conventional trappings but it's not the story indicated by those trappings. (Best illustrated by the "Who killed Laura Palmer?" craze of "Twin Peaks", as if that was meant to be a murder mystery.)

I wouldn't knock it. It's short, it's an interesting effort, it's memorable. Was it entirely effective? Not for me, and certainly not for the kids.

Gosling himself? I dunno. This is a part that calls for a pretty tight lid on any emotions. So he does a lot of vacant staring.

But there it is. I don't expect it to be a huge hit. This was, apparently, to meet some sort of requirement for award season. (I thought Oscar, but I also didn't think Oscar's requirements were anything other than "shown in a theater in L.A. in the year nominated".)

It's not a critical smash so I doubt it's going to be up for much.

The Place Beyond The Pines

"We should go see the last Ryan Gosling underworld-y flick before we see the new one tomorrow!"

And so it was that we journeyed to finally see The Place Beyond The Pines (before hitting Only God Forgives the next day) in its limited run at the local(ish) discount theater.

TPBTP was favorably received, the latest effort by writer/director Derek Cianfrance, who did 2010's well-received (if wholly depressing sounding) Blue Valentine also with Gosling. Critics and moviegoers ranked it around 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, e.g.

We would tend to disagree.

This movie is, in fact, three different (and sequential) stories, only the first of which is with Ryan Gosling. The Flower leaned in and whispered "Bait and switch!" (She also earlier spotted a motorbike-mounted-camera shot and said "Evil Dead rip-off!" I'm so proud.)

This is a really hard to thing to do successfully in a film. I was trying to give the kids some examples of it working and came up empty. There are anthologies that work. There are movies with disparate stories that are only thematically connected that work. There are movies with separate stories where the stories ultimately tie in together—that's pretty common.

But a movie where the stories are both causally and casually related? They don't leap to my mind. (I couldn't think of it at the time, but American Pop works pretty well, up to the '60s/'70s.) I think there's a reason for that.

The first story here is about Ryan Gosling who discovers that last year's fling has produced offspring and who takes it on himself to provide for the youngster the only way he can: through crime and violence. (And a theme that I think carries over from Blue Valentine: Baby Mama Eva Mendes is perfectly happy to hook up with him again behind the back of her stable beta provider, Mahershala Ali.)

This is a kind of compelling story, in the vein of Dead End, in that Gosling's sole noble motivation is the care of his child and (to a lesser extent) the child's mother. He's basically a murderous thug apart from that. There's really only so far you can go with that.

The movie takes that to its logical conclusion and gives us Bradley Cooper, the ambitious lawyercop who stops Gosling's reign of terror (mostly through dumb luck) and catapults himself into a DA position.

Then, after that plays out, we flash forward fifteen years (most of the movie takes place in the late '90s) when Gosling's kid and Cooper's kid (mostly through dumb luck) meet and befriend each other.

Yeah, there's a whole lot of coincidence here. And, I guess, thematically, this is about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons. The problem we had was that we didn't care. The characters reveal themselves through their actions, which is generally a good thing, unless those actions don't make sense to the audience. Then it's just stuff that happens.

That's how we felt. All three of us.

The other thing was that when the Gosling story ended, the momentum of that story stopped, and the movie stopped with it, dead in its tracks. The next story doesn't ever build the same momentum, but what little is built is killed. The last story never really builds much momentum as the two kids seem virtually interchangeable.

Which kind of bugged me. The DA's son had the same thuggish marble-mouthed manner of speaking as the bank robber's son. And since the bank robber's son was raised by nice, middle class people who enunciated clearly, it didn't even make sense for him to talk like that.

A minor point. It's not that we hated it, but we felt it lost momentum at the end of act one, and just got slower after the end of act two. Really, we were debating whether the third act was the longest. (I think it was the shortest but felt the longest.)

Anyway, another day, another Ryan Gosling underworld picture, and the next one would be flat out weird.

An Unfinished Song

Around these parts, Terence Stamp is best known for uttering the immortal words "Kneel before Zod!" Indeed, wherever he turns up, whether it be The Devil his ownself (Company of Wolves) or a murderous alien businessman (Alien Nation), he seems to be, well, a less-than-chipper fellow.

So seeing him as a crusty old septuagenarian who snarles at his dying wife (noted communist Vanessa Redgrave) is a natural. As this is a story of redemption, by far the most alarming thing is seeing Mr. Stamp actually smile. I'm pretty sure I've never seen him do that in an unironic fashion.

I guess I wasn't supposed to like this film, written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams (The Cottage), with its sentimentality and testimony to the power of love, but I did. (Just as I loved the documentary that was the clear inspiration for it.)

At one point, Arthur (Stamp) says to Marion (Redgrave), "You know how I feel about enjoying things."

And it's clear she does. And always has. And it's equally clear that he is similarly devoted, even if he's limited in expression to grumpiness.

His son (Christopher Eccleston, of the first season Dr. Who reboot) is less understanding, understandably and has picked up some of dad's grumpiness. I liked this part of the story as well, as Arthur is split between wanting to have a relationship with his son (and adoring his granddaughter) and thinking maybe they're better off—maybe the world is better off—if he just keeps to himself.

A less likely relationship is that of Arthur with the young choir teacher (Gemma Atherton, Pirate Radio, Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia, Hansel and Gretel), who has some of Marion's ability to see past Arthur's bitter introvertedness. Unlikely, perhaps, but necessary to the story.

The Boy and I liked it. The Flower demurred on the basis of "old people singing," but she would've liked it. The music is considerably more sentimental than "Young @ Heart" which featured hard rock almost exclusively, but largely well chosen and appropriately performed.

I recommend, unless you're a bitter old crank. Well, bitterer and crankier than Terence Stamp, anyway.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Attack

I don't think I've reviewed Paradise Now here, although I mentioned it in reference to Traitor, but that's okay because I can now review The Attack. Now, the movies actually don't share writers, directors, just an executive producer (Amir Harel) and an actor (Ali Suliman), and yet this new movie feels almost identical to the previous one.

The main difference is that Paradise Now showed nothing but unchallenged Palestinian POVs that blamed Jews for everything where The Attack shows Israelis in a relatively positive light, at first, anyway, but ultimately gives the Palestinian POV last word.

The story of The Attack is that a celebrated Palestinian surgeon discovers that his wife was present at a bombing in a local cafĂ©, and the authorities are accusing his wife of being the one with the bomb, and of him being in on it.

This isn't a mystery: Even in the trailer, it's clear that his wife did do it, and the movie is about the surgeon's journey from denial, to acceptance, to understanding.

Just like Paradise Now, this is a good movie. But also just like Paradise Now, that last step is a doozie. In Paradise Now, you're just assumed to have drunk the Kool-Aid. In this movie, there's an attempt to make you understand the plight of the Palestinians through the surgeon's journey. In the end, you still have to drink it, though.

And there's where I have trouble: I believe both movies present highly idealized representations of terrorists, which makes them more sympathetic, but makes that final step impossible to contemplate.

I mean, seriously, no normal person says "Hey, you know what would improve things? Me strapping a bomb to myself and blowing up people at random." That's beyond "not normal," it's insane or just outright evil.

The movie excuses itself from showing this by having the surgeon investigate and come across bits-and-pieces of the picture which, I'm sorry, still don't add up to "Ima blow myself and lots of other folks up."

Also, the surgeon's wife is Christian, which is pretty freaking rare in Palestine, working with Christian terrorists which I won't, without a lot more independent evidence, accept, except as an attempt to pretend there is a Palestinian people independent of Islam, and thereby justify (as if it did) atrocities.

The movie also curiously and explicitly undermines its exploration of the wife's motives in terms of the usual motivation for female terrorist (having brought dishonor to the family). I assume that's, again, to justify atrocities as legitimate and self-originated, rather than pressure from an oppressive society.

Sorry, folks, if you don't make your case clearly in your movie, I get to interpret it.

The Boy and I both looked at it like "Yeah, that's interesting...but, huh?" Approach with caution.

A Hijacking

Look, I'm an American. If negotiations for a hijacking on any boat I'm on take longer than two hours and exceed $200, I fully expect some marines (or ex-marines) to come in and take care of matters, in their time honored tradition.

Hell, if you say "It's a story of a ship that gets hijacked that's focused on the chef," I'm thinking that chef had better be Steven Seagal and Erika Eleniak had better be getting geared up to take her kit off for Under Siege 3.

A Hijacking is a Danish film, however (Kapringen)—and our Danish friends have fallen a long way from their Viking days. This is about an hour-and-a-half of a very realistic-seeming sequence of events involving the pirates, the hostages on the ship, and the corporation the hostages worked for.

It's a little unfocused, but rather refreshingly, the main character is the head of the corporation, who decides it's his responsibility to handle the negotiations. He's a noble, if somewhat pigheaded character, who doesn't make a complete mess of things.

Didn't really expect that from a Scandinavian socialist paradise.

The scenes on the boat are grueling and intense. At times, you can almost smell it, as the hostages aren't allowed to use the bathroom and are stuck out in the still, hot air of the Indian Ocean. (At the same time, they're part of what holds the story back, because the hostages are truly helpless.

Although they are able to maintain their bodyfat after four months at sea with limited rations. Heh. Lazy Danish actors.

The negotiating scenes are even more intense, because offers are made, rejected, back-and-forth, with days and weeks between them. The normally perfectly coiffed, hard-ass CEO gets more and more frazzled and you're wondering how long he can go on under the stress he's under.

We liked it. It was not a "high-octane adrenaline-fueled thrill ride," but we weren't really expecting that. Glad it wasn't any longer, though.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Detention of the Dead

A stoner, a geek, a princess, a criminal and a jock—and then another jock, but he doesn't last long—are serving detention when a zombie breakout occurs in the new indie flick Detention of the Dead.

So, yeah, The Breakfast Club by way of...uh...I dunno, some zombie flick. It's cute, quirky, beyond campy, and light-as-a-feather, coming in comfortably under 90 minutes. It's not just Breakfast Club, it also references Sixteen Candles, The Faculty, Night of the Living Dead (duh), and, well, a bunch of the other flicks the kids hadn't seen.

There's even a scene directly lifted from the '80s sitcom "Square Pegs", though whether that's properly a reference or just plain-old plagiarism, I cannot say. (The kids were impressed when I said the lines in advance, though.)

The opening scene is cut in Edgar Wright's trademark styling (from Shaun of the Dead and the "Spaced!" TV show) but only that one scene. I gotta believe that's due to the expense and effort to do sequences like that, but it's kind of a shame because even a rip-off of Wright is funnier and more entertaining than the otherwise flat, stagey style that's ostensibly original to Alex Craig Mann.

We all liked (but not loved) it. There are some good yuks and it's lively enough, though it has the problem of occasionally becoming what it parodies. The basic dramatic tension, such as it is, comes from nerd guy lusting after cheerleader girl while ignoring goth girl, leading to goth girl delivering a climactic speech on how nerd-guy is just as big a jerk and sheeple as everyone else.

I'd say there was some biting commentary in a goth delivering messages about conformity, but this particular moment seemed completely sincere.

The original music was pretty good for the most part, but there were about two too many pop-song montages padding out the film.

Christa B. Allen, who plays the cheerleader, Janet—all the characters are named after famous horror characters, Brad, Janet and Eddie (from Rocky Horror Picture Show) as well as Willow and Ash from "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer" and Evil Dead respectively—was a standout, in part because her character was somehow the least cliched. She brought a lot of energy to the role.

She was also standing outside the theater when we got there, which was kind of cool, though the kids didn't notice.

I could point out many more flaws, but that would seem to be overthinking it. It's fun. Don't expect too much. Enjoy the references and energy. You could do worse, and this summer, you almost certainly will.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Man Of Steel

The human being cannot resist giving himself an edge. This leads to what I like to call "institutionalized unethicalness". For example, although there are alternate explanations as for why, I can't help but believe that the reason a 2x4 isn't 2x4, is because somebody started skimming off the edges, and soon everyone did, and finally a standard was created to stop the shenanigans.

And if it's not true for 2x4s it's most certainly true for hard disk sizes. One kilobyte is 1024 bytes. A megabyte should be 1024x1024, but various hard-drive manufacturers used 1000x1024, since it made the drives look more capacious in advertising. And so, today, if you by a terabyte drive you end up with more like 900 gigabytes (because OSes report the actual size).

It's not just true for trades and crafts, though. It's also true for art. In music, the standard A-over-middle-C pitch is 440 cycles, which was a standard adopted in the 20th century. In the 19th century, it was closer to 420 cycles. Why? Because being a little bit sharp allows you stand out from everyone else.

The ultimate classic interpretation of this is Nigel Tuffnel's amplifier that goes to eleven. (One louder than ten!)

I provide this historical diversion because Zach Snyder/Chris Nolan's Man of Steel goes to eleven, and this seems to be what most people take from it, like or not.

If it's not global, it's cosmic in importance. It's not enough to punch a guy through a building, you gotta punch him through twelve buildings and the streets and, you know, through a tanker of gas or something.

The Boy did not care for it. He didn't hate it, exactly. It was not In Time, but he made the observation (rephrased slightly here to eliminate cuss words) that they just fought and fought and fought and no one actually got hurt. These are literally pointless battle scenes.

And they do go on. (And on. And on.) Like most modern superhero movies, the battle scenes seem to go on with no grounding or point, just the billionaire's equivalent of playing with dolls.

I also did not hate it, and I'm sort of inured to the length, pointless battle scenes, especially if the rest of the movie is good (I also watch porn for the plot!) but I did have some serious issues with their artistic choices, a good many of which can probably be laid at producer Nolan's feet.

First, Batman is not Superman. Actually, even before that, we should note that Batman isn't even Batman, as he's been portrayed popularly in recent years. Batman has a dark side. He isn't completely dark all the time, at least not traditionally. There's an element of hope in Batman, as there must be in all heroes.

But Superman? He's invulnerable, omnipotent and possibly immortal. He's the ultimate power fantasy, and the ultimate hopeful retort to the notion that "power corrupts" that every young boy believes in. ("If I were all-powerful, I'd use that power to fight bad guys!")

I am the first to admit, this makes traditional dramatic structure challenging. But there are plenty of good movies that don't have character arcs. (Sorry, Syd Fields.) And, look, you took this job, so give us Superman, already, and not Batman-in-blue.

There were some very good choices made: Having Lois Lane (Amy Adams, looking lovely even when filmed in washed-out-make-me-look-tired-lighting) be in on the whole Clark Kent/Superman thing from the ground floor was good.

Having Clark's powers grow over time, due to atmospheric differences, and making the development of his powers sort of autism-like was kind of interesting, and provided a good story hook later on.

Some of the choices were neutral: There is no kryptonite in this movie. "Kryptonian atmosphere" serves the exact same purpose, though. There's a mess of back story on Krypton which goes on way too long but has a purpose, at least.

The real problem (for me) was that the bad choices were catastrophically bad. I mentioned earlier that Superman is dramatically problematic because he's basically perfect. So the usual gambit for creating a story with him is to rob him of his powers in some fashion. (Sam Raimi used this gag twice or maybe three times, come to think of it, in the Spider-Man movies.)

Typically this is done with kryptonite. This movie does it, at first, by saying Supes' powers are acquired, possibly slowly. Then, that he doesn't know their limits, he has to be instructed. All good, so far.

But the real limit on his powers? Pa Kent. Pa says "Hey, don't use those or people will find out you're an alien. And, doesn't matter if people are gonna die, maybe don't save them."

SPOILER


This is lame. The movie keeps Supes hobbled by saying "Hey, maybe you can't trust humans."

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. The net effect of people being made aware of alien life would be about zero. In reality, 80% of the population still wouldn't believe, and the 20% who did believe it already believed in aliens.

Early on, too, Superman abuses his power by destroying a working man's truck. Very un-Superman. Even if the guy deserved a little payback.

The movie's climax is the least Superman thing of all.

SPOILER





This was probably done for shock value, except that people really can't be shocked without first being immersed in the pro-America, good-guy power fantasy to begin with.

Of course, it's competently directed by Snyder, and the cast includes Larry Fishburne as Perry White, Kevin Costener as Pa Kent and Russell Crow as Jor El. Diane Lane stands out as Ma Kent, as does Chris Meloni, who plays a military guy. Michael Shannon was an interesting choice to play General Zod but I liked him.

Superman is played by Henry Cavill, who was in the lamentably forgettable (forgettably lamentable?) Immortals and he does a good job, even in the few moments where he is actually Superman and not a Kryptonian Batman. (One thing Chris Reeve nailed in the '70s movies was the Superman persona, which was probably only allowed for potential camp value.)

The Flower thought it was okay, though she expressed the (correct) belief that if she knew anything at all about Superman, it would've pissed her off. (My kids are not comic book geeks.)

Even so, I can't really recommend it, unless you're a fan of the whole "going to eleven" thing.

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