Sunday, January 17, 2016

Retro Trio: Sunshine (2007); The Big Lebowski (1998); Shall We Dance? (2004)

Sunshine (2007)

Director: Danny Boyle

Smart, intriguing sci-fi that goes a bit off the rails in the third act.

Sunshine is set in a future where our sun is slowly dying, leading to a gradual cooling of Earth and the impending, subsequent death of all living things on it. To prevent such a complete devastation, a crew of astronauts is piloting a ship, the Icarus II, towards the sun in order to deliver a nuclear payload to the star's center. This will trigger a rebirth of the sun's energy and allow life to continue on our planet. A similar mission had been sent a few years prior, on the original Icarus craft, but it failed with no word from the crew, who have been presumed dead.

Of course, the Icarus II's trip does not go as planned. Once they get close enough to the sun, they receive some form of message from the original Icarus. The crew make the risky decision to investigate. Technical problems start to emerge after the detour is taken, and lives are lost. Matters go from bad to worse when one of the original Icarus's crew members, Pinbacker, is discovered to be alive and completely insane. Pinbacker sneaks aboard the Icarus II and, convinced that humanity deserves to die, does everything he can to sabotage their mission to deliver the payload.

Sunshine boasts a great many strengths as a film. Written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd, Ex Machina), the story is wonderfully smart science fiction. Beyond the mere adventure of the Icarus II's mission, there is plenty of character conflict and psychological probing. The crew must repeatedly make extremely difficult decisions, similar to what is seen in the predecessor film Alien, and also later space travel movies like Europa Report and Interstellar. Such films are all the stronger due to the stakes on every level.

The acting is also top-notch. There are many actors who either were already well-established, like Michelle Yeoh, or have since become so, such as Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byre, and others. Every one of them displays their characters' stengths and weaknesses phenomenally well, which is essential for such science fiction movies to ascend beyond a mere genre piece.

My only real issue with the movie comes from its third act. When the tension is at its absolute peak, the visuals and editing become extemely trippy and herky-jerky, which is a technique that director Danny Boyle has put to good use several times in his career. For Sunshine, however, I found it unnecessary and disorienting. Simply, I lost my sense of spatial orientation bewteen characters and actions. I realize that this might have been Boyle's intent, but this knowledge didn't make it any easier to watch.

This aesthetic gripe aside, I thought that Sunshine was a great piece of science fiction cinema. Along with other Alex Garland-written movies like Dredd and Ex Machina, I've found that rare, reliable sci-fi writer whom I plan to follow faithfully for at least the next several years.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Like many fans of this film, I could probably write a doctoral thesis on what I love about it. For the purposes of this blog, I'll keep it relatively short and sweet. I think this movie is an absolute classic, and I can't imagine it ever getting old.

The entire concept has "Coen Brothers" written all over it. What if we tell an LA noir crime story, a la Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, only instead of a weary but capable PI in the middle of it all, we thrust a burnt-out stoner into the role of protagonist? It's a great starting concept, though it was one which required a lot more spice to make a memorable movie. The Coen brothers were up to the challenge.

If you read a bare-bones, general plot synopsis of the tale, it would bear a striking similarity to film noir - an unsuspecting citizen is mistaken for a wealthy local by a shady and powerful figure. The young wife of this shady and powerful figure is soon after kidnapped, at which point, the protagonist is soon thrown into the machinations of various parties who are interested in the million-dollar ransom put up for her release. The path to resolution is a winding one, along which the protagonist meets many strange characters, each with his or her own motivations.

That blueprint could just as easily have been some lesser-known Hammett or Chandler novel. Instead of Sam Spade trying to navigate the troubled waters of the tale, though, we get "The Dude," a loveable but interminably lazy stoner whose sensibilities never escaped the hippie movement of the 1960s. The powerful figures he meets include the self-aggrandizing Jeoffrey Lebowski, porn producer Jackie Treehorn, and the son of Arthur Digby Sellers ("you ever hear of a little show called 'Branded,' Dude?!"), among many others. Each and every appearance is hilariously memorable, all done in a style that only the Coen brothers would even attempt to pull off.

One of the countless moments of hilarious banter between
oddballs in the movie. This one involves nihilists, marmots,
and the Dude possibly getting castrated. Where else
would you possibly find such a thing?
While the Coen brothers have made snappy, memorable dialogue a regular feature in their movies, none is as highly quotable as The Big Lebowski (Raising Arizona is a contender, but it falls short). Thanks to sharp and quirky comedic writing and brilliant comic acting on the parts of over a dozen actors, nearly every line humorously expresses something about the oddball character who delivers it. From "It really tied the room together," to "The bums will always lose," to "Nobody fucks with the Jesus," and endless others, fans of this movie can send themselves into a tantric frenzy when they get into a room and start firing off line after memorable line.

It is arguable that The Big Lebowski is not "great cinema," and that it is not the Coen Brothers' best movie. However, it is certainly their most beloved. Being such a strange fusion of their unusual, and ususually effective, comic sensibilties and their passion for classic noir cinema, this movie is such a singular work that its cult classic status is more than well-deserved.

Shall We Dance? (2004)

Director: Peter Chelsom

Certainly not my cup of tea, but it's easy to see the appeal for many.

Shall We Dance is the story of John Clark (Richard Gere), a family man in New York City who seems a bit discontent with his normal, though very enviable, life. On his normal bus ride home, he spies a beautiful young woman staring forelornly out of a window to a dance school. He eventually and reluctantly enrolls in dance classes there, albeit without telling his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon). He even gets a bit of instruction from the sad muse from the window, Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), an exceptional dancer and teacher.

The movie is almost pure fluff. There is very little that is dangerous or challenging. A few of the characters do experience a tribulation or two here and there, but none of them is so great that it can't be overcome with some laughter and a touch of attitude. The main comic relief comes from the characters Bobbie and Link (Lisa Anne Walter and Stanley Tucci), two oddballs with great passion for dancing. Along with the mere presence of these two, there is plenty of light humor sprinkled regularly through the film, in the form of slapstick on the dance floor or airy dialogue.

The movie accomplishes its goals, thanks mostly to its incredibly talented cast. Supporting members like the aforementioned Walter and Tucci, along with Bobby Cannavale, often sell some rather tepid gags through sheer force of acting talent. Also, having Richard Jenkins give a great deadpan performance in a small role is a welcome element. These things were just enough to hold my attention. They help buoy the primary husband/wife/hot dance instructor relationship drama that takes very few risks and I found only slightly interesting.

Shall We Dance is probably not a movie that I'll need to watch again. It was certainly a good enough movie for those in a rom-com kind of mood.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Before I Die #562: Under the Skin (2014)

This is the 562nd of the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" list that I am gradually working my way through.

Director: Jonathan Glazer

A very self-assured, measured, and meditative blend of science-fiction and horror.

Under the Skin is a tale of an alien on Earth; Scotland, to be precise. It takes on the appearance of an attractive young woman (Scarlett Johannson), and it uses sexual wiles to lure men into a lair where they are trapped and eventually devoured in a fashion similar to certain insects' prey. Eventually, though, the alien starts to show some slight signs of empathy and self-awareness. This does not seem to sit well with her watcher/guardian, which both assists and monitors her moves.

This movie is unlike nearly any other science-fiction film I've seen, and it is not difficult to see why it is divisive among audiences. Any viewer who tuned in to see a Species-type of exploitation splatter- and sex-fest, or even simply to bask in Scarlett Johannson's physical beauty, was bound to be confounded and disappointed. Though there are a handful of moments with shocking and amazing visuals, Under the Skin is a measured film of very deliberate pace. This leaves a lot of quiet space and time for us viewers to ponder and attempt to make sense of the many unanswered questions about the alien and its motivations. This was bound to be a bit too demanding for those looking for broader or more action-based entertainment.

Since the film leaves out any sort of explicit answers as to the alien's ultimate goals or actions, the movie can be read in many different ways. Some are likely to see it as commentary on sexuality. Others will probably read into it the themes of power and gender. Still others may take away messages about feminism and empathy. All of these possibilities ran through my mind as I watched the alien cruise the human world, initially looking for prey but eventually looking for something which she could feel but not recognize. This is the mark of an interesting and artistic film: one that can be interpreted many ways, with nearly all of the interpretations being valid.

The only thing I can criticize about the movie is that it does drag just a little bit during the second act, when the pattern of the alien finding a lone man, luring said man to its lair, and then trapping it, did become just a touch monotonous. However, this only amounted to perhaps about 5 or 10 minutes of the movie which felt slightly redundant. Those aside, I found Under the Skin to be a confident, challenging movie that is one of the most unique sci-fi films released in the last twenty years. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Retro Trio: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); Win Win (2012); Kung-Fu Panda (2008)

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

I just watched this movie for the second time. The first time, I absolutely loved it. The second time, I really enjoyed it, but I noticed a very unfortunate and nasty blemish that I hadn't seen the first time.

Kingsman is essentially a clever modernization of the entire James Bond mythos, told with a dizzying amount of joy. It centers on Gary "Eggsy" Unwin, a very intelligent and gifted young man who lives the life of a punk in a downtrodden neighborhood. He unexpectedly becomes a part of a group called "The Kingsman," a secret society created by wealthy British aristocrats wanting to protect the world with the freedom and anonymity that national governments do not possess. Eggsy quickly learns that his father was an agent in Kingsman, in which his moniker was "Lancelot," as Kingsman all adopt names taken from the Knights of the Round Table from British history. Eggsy himself is given a chance to become a Kingsman by going through a grueling training/tryout with other candidates. While this is occurring, the brilliant computer programmer Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is plotting to kill nearly all of humanity in an insane attempt to save the planet from human contamination.

The movie is very self-aware in its over-the-top plot, action, and its use of the James Bond template for an epic tale of world-saving. Two of the main characters even get meta during a conversation about their love of old Bond movie villains and their megalomaniacal schemes. This element of the movie could have become a tiresome crutch, but it merely served as a solid springboard into some highly amusing and creative alterations to the familiar Bond tropes. Where Bond has Q, the Kingsman have Merlin. Where Bond was a polished metrosexual who studied at Eton, Eggsy is a diamond in the rough of a neighborhood full of thugs and punks. Where Bond villains have nearly always been icy cold in their attitude towards death and brutal violence, Valentine becomes nauseated at the sight of blood. The differences are all overtly intentional and wonderfully entertaining.

You might not have guessed it, but Colin Firth makes an
excellent gentleman of lethal action. 
As an action film, Kingsman is brilliant. Director Matthew Vaughn, known for directing Layer Cake and for producing Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, keeps the tempo fast and furious. There are plenty of brutal fights, daredevil escapes, and lively chase scenes, all presented with no end of effective verve. Though I am not a fan of most action movies, per se, I found the controlled insanity of Kingsman a pleasure to take in.

All of the above are fantastic, and they hold up on repeated viewing. On my second watch, though, a nasty element of the film became glaring. The attitude towards female characters is conservative at best and downright insulting at worst. The only "strong" female character is Valentine's henchwoman, Gazelle, who is a bloodthirsty killer in the mold of classic Bond villains like Oddjob. The few other females are painfully weak. Eggsy's mother is a pathetic victim. A Danish princess is initially presented as intelligent, but then becomes a mere sex object. Even Eggsy's fellow Kingsman recruit, Roxy, needs constant encouragement from Eggsy, despite her clear merits as a tough potential agent. I found this gender imbalance a bit callous for the modern age of storytelling.

This is still a really fun movie. A sequel is planned, and I'll gladly go see it. My only hope is that we can see some movement towards giving us at least one or two respectable, strong, and fully-formed female characters to go along with the excellent male ones.

Win Win (2012)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Another great indie film from Tom McCarthy.

McCarthy has been and will continue to be a buzz-worthy name right up to and through the Oscars next year, since he is the screenwriter and director of the amazing Spotlight. However, film fans will likely already know him for his earlier films The Station Agent or maybe even The Visitor. Like those earlier works, Win Win manages to hit on the themes of people's relationships to one another, primarily when one of them is an unintentional misfit within his or her context.

Win Win focuses mostly on small-town, New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti). Mike has a very modest practice which is falling on hard times. His looming financial straits inspire Mike's morally dubious decision to become a state-appointed guardian for a modestly wealthy client, Leo Poplar. Instead of actually taking care of Leo, however, Mike leaves him at a retirement home and collects his guardian checks. This seems to be working fine, until Leo's grandson Kyle shows up from Ohio, mostly to get away from his addict mother. The rather quiet but self-possessed Kyle eventually comes to live with Mike, his wife and daughter. Kyle becomes an even larger part of their lives when Mike, the high school wrestling coach, discovers that Kyle is a top-flight wrestler.

Very much like McCarthy's other movies, Win Win is all about personal relationships and how they shift and change under various pressures. The balance between organic drama and humor is impeccable. In lesser hands, this movie could easily have become a sentimental bore or a more light-hearted, quirky comedy in the vein of Wes Anderson. As it is, though, it has legitimate emotional heft to go with its considerable entertainment value. There are so many great moments of revelation, particularly with Kyle, that prove that stories can be engaging and fulfilling without being sensational.

I am now officially a Mike McCarthy fan. All four of his films which I have seen have been nothing short of excellent, and I eagerly await his next work.

Kung-Fu Panda (2008)

Directors: Mark Osborn and John Stevenson

I was pleasantly surprised with my first viewing of this modern popular animated movie. It showed far more skill and age-spanning humor than I was expecting.

The movie is set in a world modelled after medieval China, and where there are no humans. Rather, it is populated by all forms of animals that walk, talk and move around like humans. In this world, the kindly panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) is a noodle cook who idolizes the "Kung Fu" legends of the land, most specifically the "Furious Five" who fight evil and are headquartered close to Po's village. When word arrives that the villainous Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is about to return and exact vengeance on the Furious Five, a prophesied "Dragon Warrior" is selected to defend the temple. Surprisingly, it is Po who is chosen as the Dragon Warrior. Surprising in that Po is overweight, undisciplined, and completely unschooled in martial arts.

My expectations were not terribly high for this movie, and I mostly watched it because my wife is a fan of the it (and pandas, in general). Much to my delight, the movie is fun, clever, and amazingly vibrant. In both the visual humor and spoken gags, there are plenty of creative and comedic twists on well-known tropes. Young kids surely love the sillier slapstick and goofy, energetic deliveries of Jack Black, but older viewers like me can find plenty of laughs as well. Playing on many of the stereotypes laid out in popular kung-fu movies, the story and script take plenty of left turns to keep things fresh and interesting. It helps that there are some phenomenal voice actors, including Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and James Hong, among several others.

The characters and settings are as colorful as anything
you've seen in an animated movie. The grade-A voice acting
enhances the energy even more.
The animation and visuals are dazzling. This movie is as colorful and eye-popping as any animated films that you are likely to see. The animators clearly drew from the wide color palate of classic Chinese culture and crafted a movie that is simply a joy to look at. Enhancing all of this are action sequences that are fun but not dizzying, as one may find in more hyper-kinetic anime films or cartoons aimed at very young children.

While I cannot quite put this film on the same level as some of the best Pixar movies, it is as close as I've seen from a rival animation studio. I would gladly return to this one in the future, as it's an entertaining way to feel like a kid again, without feeling as if my intelligence were being insulted. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Let Him Have It (1991); Layer Cake (2004); State of Grace (1990)

Let Him Have It (1991)

Director: Peter Medak

A harrowing drama about one of the most personal tragedies in criminal and judicial history.

Let Him Have It is a documdrama about the life of Derek Bentley, a mentally inferior young man who, in London of 1953, falls in with the wrong people and pays the ultimate price. Derek is a young, impressionable 19-year-old who is lured into a small gang of wanna-be criminals made up of boys still in secondary school. The leader is Chris Craig, an especially loud-mouthed lad who works hard to look and sound like the crooks glamorized in Hollywood gangster movies. He and three of his cohorts walk around town dressed in dark trenchcoats and black fedoras, trying as hard as possible to imitate Chris's authentically criminal older brother. Derek, an otherwise gentle soul, is taken in by the strong attitude and image of Chris's gang, and he begins to sneak away from his parents' home to hang out with them.

On the most fateful of nights, Derek finds himself on a warehouse rooftop with Chris, both of them playfully looking for a way to break in. The police arrive, however, and when one of them apprehends Derek, Chris pulls a gun. As the police officer demands that Chris turn over the weapon, a frightened Derek calls out "Let him have it, Chris," which Chris misunderstands as a prompt to shoot the officer. A firefight and standoff ensue, ending with Chris injured from a long fall, one officer wounded, and another dead by Chris's hand. The real tragedy begins when Derek and Chris are brought to court, where the penalty for their crimes is execution.

The movie is a strong one, and the tragedy of the situation is palpable. Thanks to very strong acting and pacing, what could have been a depressing slog is actually a sad but compelling account. Very much in the vein of Kieslowski's 1990 film Decalogue Five: Thou Shalt Not Kill and the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, with their the juxtaposition of illegal murder with legal execution, Let Him Have It forces viewers to think long and hard about capital punishment.

As with any film which depicts a tragedy which happened in reality, the dramatization offers a buffer which a documentary would not. However, for cases which happened longer in past, such as this one, I feel that a well-crafted and respectful docudrama is the closest we can get to truly feeling the loss the the Bentley family did at the end of this affair. Let Him Have It is not a movie which needs to be seen more than once, but once is all but mandatory.

Layer Cake (2004)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

An entertaining British gangster flick, adding depth to the Guy Ritchie brand of films which preceded and obviously influenced it.

Layer Cake tells the story of a highly intelligent, never-named drug dealer (Daniel Craig) who is on the cusp of sealing a final "big deal" in London which will allow him to retire from the sordid, dangerous world of crime. As such stories go, though, things get extremely complicated, extremely quickly.

Up to the point of the tale's beginning, "Mr. X" has been expert at keeping his head down and remaining under the radar of more powerful or more volatile criminals in his industry. However, once the wrinkles start to pop up, X must navigate lethally treacherous waters infested with British gang lords, headstrong power-grabbers, and his own conscience. Following the actions and reactions of X certainly makes for a sometimes fun, sometimes harrowing, and often violent tale.

The style and construction of the movie is quite familiar to any who have watched 1998's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or 2000's Snatch, the two seminal modern British gangster movies by Guy Ritchie. There's a dizzying array of shadowy, vicious characters, and more than a little gallows humor sprinkled throughout. Compared to those earlier movies, though, Layer Cake ratchets down the insanity and overt comedy in favor of taut suspense. This is carried through with great performances all around by the brilliant cast, spearheaded by a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig.

One could criticize the movie for borrowing too heavily from Ritchie's hyperspeed style of storytelling (director Matthew Vaughn was, in fact, a producer of Ritchie's films), but this was easy for me to forgive. While there is nothing of great ingenuity here in terms of subject matter or methodology, Layer Cake feels enough like its own movie not to be overly harsh with any critique. It goes deeper into the protagonist's psyche than any Ritchie film ever dared, which prevents it from being a mere clone.

State of Grace (1990)

Director: Phil Joanou

If timing is everything, then State of Grace had nothing going for it from the jump. This is a shame, as it is a great gangster movie.

I had never even heard of this movie before I came across it on a "best gangster films" list. When I saw the cast list, I was further amazed that it was never on my radar. The movie follows young undercover police officer Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), who has returned to his old neighborhood in the Irish section of New York's Hell's Kitchen. Under the guise of a drifter looking to get back into the criminal lifestyle, he reunites with old friend Mickey Flannery (Gary Oldman), and the two soon begin cracking jokes and skulls, alike. Terry's ultimate plan is to obtain incriminating evidence on Mickey's older brother, Frankie (Ed Harris), who has become the boss of the local Irish mob. However, doing the right thing as a cop becomes far more difficult for Terry as he becomes further entrenched in his old environment.

The characters, plot, acting, and general direction of State of Grace are excellent. The drama between Noonan and the Flannerys is organic and tense, with a palpable emotional depth. The story unfolds and intensifies as well as the very best crime dramas. In addition to the great actors mentioned above, several supporting roles are played expertly by great talents like Robin Wright, John C. Reilly, and John Turturro.

At this point, you many be wondering how a high-quality movie, with such an outstanding cast, is not better-known. I wondered the same thing until I discovered that State of Grace was released on September 14, 1990. For those without a photographic memory for film release dates, this is the exact same day that Goodfellas was released. Yikes. When forced to go head-to-head against one of the absolute greatest gangster movies in the history of cinema, anything less than The Godfather would pale in comparison. Such was the fate of State of Grace. It could not have helped that, by this time, Martin Scorsese was well-established as a brilliant director, so that his return to New York crime tales was bound to drown out even an outstanding effort by a relative newcomer like State of Grace director Phil Joanou. No, Joanou's movie is not as great as Goodfellas, but it is one of the best of its kind.

The commercial and historical fate of State of Grace is rather sad. However, I highly recommend the movie to anyone who loves the gangster genre. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Before I Die #561: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

This is the 561st that I've watched of the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" List that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: John Huston

A decent enough noir flick, but one that I'm a bit surprised is held in such high esteem.

The basic tale focuses on a bank heist, masterminded by a recently paroled master thief, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe). Doc arrives in a new city, where he quickly gets to work assembling a small crew who will help him pull off his long-planned score. The gang he gathers includes the safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli, the gunman Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), and the driver Gus Minissi. Doc has his plot bankrolled by a shady lawyer, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern). The heist begins well enough, but multiple complication start to arise, between one crew member being shot by police, and the entire gang being double-crossed by Emmerich.

In terms of noir crime plots, The Asphalt Jungle is solid, if not completely novel. It seems a sort of hybrid between 1946's The Killers and 1948's The Killing (noir films weren't noted for originality in their titles). In fact, the latter film also starred Sterling Hayden, who is also the key player in Jungle. The familiarity of the story and tone robbed the movie of some of its edge for me. Still, the suspense as the heist unfolds is on par with some of the very best crime movies.

Dix (far left) and Riedenschneider (far right) display their
spoils to their ostensible patron, the oily Emmerich.
I found the characters varyingly engaging. Doc Riedenschneider is certainly the most unique and entertaining of the lot. A quirky and brilliant old thief with a weakness for young ladies is bound to be entertaining, and he is. The primary character Dix, however, I found rather dull compared to other classic noir protagonists. There is some complexity beneath his gruff exterior, but he's still rather simple. Sterling Hayden is an all-time great stoic, but it robbed the character of some intrigue. Most others in the film are fairly shallow, though acted well enough.

The classic noir era of the 1940s and '50s provided me with some of my absolute favorite movies. I still watch Double Indemnity and Out of the Past every few years with growing love and appreciation. Checking out another touted film from the era like The Asphalt Jungle was enjoyable, but I can't put it in the same class as those other masterpieces.