Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cinetopia Golden Ticket: August 2013

Previously, I bragged about fitting in seven movies over my usual six at Cinetopia. For August, I shattered that record with a whopping nine. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it. It wasn’t as if August was less busy. On the contrary, there was never a dull moment: I had a birthday, went to my high school reunion, raised enough money to publish a book, participated in Portland’s 48-hr Film Project, went to “Trek in the Park,” kept up with all the new episodes of “Breaking Bad,” and – on top of the nine films I saw at Cinetopia – I saw at least six more at the Hollywood Theatre (speaking of which, Fruitvale Station, 20 Feet from Stardom, and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing are all quite good and well worth checking out). It made me realize that the reason my Cinetopia average is only six movies per month isn’t because I don’t have time to watch more; It’s because there aren’t more worth watching in any given month. August was a major exception, though. Some of the best movies of the year played last month.

Movie Thirty-three: 2 Guns – I was pretty devastated when Tony Scott took his life about this time last year. Not just because suicide is always tragic and not just because I thought he was a skilled auteur, but because he made a particular kind of movie that we don’t see too much of anymore. And, now that he’s gone, we’re likely to see it even less. There isn’t even a word to describe the kind of film I mean. Think about what abstract elements Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout, and Enemy of the State have in common and that’s what it is. The action movie that’s silly but not stupid, fun but not campy, violent but not grotesque, implausible but not unbelievable, frivolous but not lazy, accessible but not insulting. It’s a delicate equilibrium and Tony Scott made it look easy. Even the movies of his I didn’t particularly like, I still respected. 2 Guns is about the closest I’ve ever seen a movie come to re-creating Tony Scott’s magic since (and it stars Denzel Washington, Mr. Scott’s most oft-used leading man). 2 Guns has that aloof “too cool for school” atmosphere, well-crafted action scenes (that are actually relevant to the plot and – thankfully – not computer generated), charmingly duplicitous villains, and a lively sense of humor injected throughout. Not everyone will appreciate it, but I feel sorry for those people. Whenever I think I might be turning into a movie snob, I remember how much pleasure I get from rollercoaster-esque films like this and it brings me back to reality.

Movie Thirty-four: We’re the Millers – I love the idea for this movie. It’s like National Lampoon’s Vacation meets Blow. Plus, it’s got a strong cast that has great chemistry (both as total strangers and as a fake family). The characters are well-realized and they interact very naturalistically. Somewhere, however, it falls short. I suppose the easiest place to cast blame is in the writing, which is too bad because the writers were at least competent enough to create such strong exposition. I guess they just couldn’t finish what they started. That’s not to say this is a bad movie. I laughed a lot and enjoyed it for the most part. What I found disappointing was that it was poised for something great, but delivered something that was merely good. I guess what bothered me most was that it was so fraught with deus ex machina. The “Millers” get themselves into so many sticky situations, as the plot suggests, but their means of getting out of them are so simple and random it seems like the writers were more interested in moving onto the next scene than dealing with the one at hand. That’s a shame. This story and its characters deserve better.

Movie Thirty-five: Planes – I love all things PIXAR, but I think my least favorite of their films so far is Cars 2. I enjoyed the original Cars, but I didn’t think it merited a sequel and consequently found the sophomore installment pretty forgettable. I’m glad they made Planes instead of Cars 3, but not that glad. Planes is pretty much a combination of Cars (except, instead of a superstar who learns humility, we have an underdog who learns how to become a superstar) and Cars 2 (except instead of an international race that accompanies a spy thriller, we have simply an international race without any espionage subplot at all). Writer/director Klay Hall is pretty new to this (writing, directing, and being employed by PIXAR) and it shows. The aerial animation is fun to watch, but that’s about the only exceptional thing about it. I saw the film in 2-D, but I think it could possibly be better in 3-D. That’s not much of a compliment, though. I hate to say PIXAR has gotten to the point of “phoning it in”, but that’s what this film feels like. This close on the heels of the superb Monsters University, it seems more like Planes served as a practice round more than a serious attempt at another great film. The end credits announce that a sequel is already in the works. PIXAR has set the bar pretty high for themselves for many years, so I hope they up their game for Planes: Fire & Rescue next year. I’m pretty sure I’ll be less forgiving of it than I was towards Cars 2.

Movie Thirty-six: Elysium – In my recap of Pacific Rim last month, I expressed my admiration for Guillermo Del Toro’s handling of CGI. He should watch his back, though, because Neill Blomkamp is close to dethroning Mr. Del Toro. I didn’t think District 9 was worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but I was pretty amazed by its stunning special effects and overall originality. Blomkamp delivers another unique mind-blowing adventure for his second feature proving at the very least that, as a writer/director, he is far from a one-hit wonder. This isn’t the best film of the year, but it just might be the most impressive. Like District 9, this film also has its share of social commentary (focusing mostly on immigration, poverty, and *gasp* universal health care). The story itself is very original and quite enthralling, but it’s all the extra stuff that really pushes it over the top. The technology in the film (manifested as weapons, tools, vehicles, medical devices, communications, etc) is awe-inspiring as well as logically realistic in a possible future. I was reminded of Minority Report, which employed similar tactics, but not as remarkably as here. The plot is smart, but fairly simple. The characters are likeable enough and matched by the villains’ flagitiousness. The action scenes are exciting and quite visceral. Although, I would like to make one sincere plea in response to this film (not just to Mr. Blomkamp, but to contemporary directors all over the world): Please stop with this shaky camera nonsense. The steady cam was invented for a reason and it works perfectly, so use it. While the shaky picture adds some sense of chaos and realism, it’s ultimately distracting and damn frustrating when the viewer can barely tell what’s going on. If you can just get over that shortcoming, Mr. Blomkamp, the throne is yours.

Movie Thirty-seven: Kick-Ass 2 – I did not like the original Kick-Ass, which is a pity because I was prepared to love it. I felt like it couldn’t decide between being an ironic misfit comedy or a gritty action drama (Imagine if Kevin Smith and Martin Scorcese tried to make a movie together). Consequently, the film failed as both a comedy and an action picture. Overall, I found it distastefully nihilistic, unappealingly brutal and one of the most mean-spirited films I’ve ever seen, so I approached this sequel prepared to see them go further down the spiral (especially since Jim Carrey said he couldn’t in good conscience promote the film due its violent content). The truth is, much to my surprise, I really liked it. I felt like it was exactly what its predecessor should have been: A well-constructed dark comedy with the kind of tongue-in-cheek action scenes that would make Robert Rodriguez smirk. It’s probably every bit as violent as the original, but somehow it doesn’t seem as cruel or cynical. Plus, the original had too many scenes that felt pointless and out of place, but this film seems more purposeful. It’s still quite silly and it wouldn’t surprise me if more people hate it than love it, but it’s exceptionally rare for me to enjoy the sequel to a movie I thought sucked pretty bad. The epilogue after the end credits indicates that they have every intention of making a Kick-Ass 3. I’m totally okay with that, provided they continue to learn from their mistakes.

Movie Thirty-eight: The Butler – I remember, the night Barack Obama was elected President in November of 2008, I was at the Democratic Party of Oregon’s rally at the Convention Center in Portland – not because I’m a hard-core Democrat, but because a friend had an extra ticket and it seemed like an exciting place to be on election night. By the time we got there, Obama had already been declared the winner and the building was vibrating with shouts and cheers of victory and relief – up until Obama delivered his acceptance speech. The entire hall, filled with who knows how many thousands of people, went totally silent. I was standing below one of the projection screens broadcasting his speech, putting me pretty much at the front of the crowd. I decided to turn around and look at the audience instead of up at the president for the duration of the speech. I figured if I wanted to see the president’s acceptance speech, I could watch it online later. Instead, I opted to watch the faces of his supporters while I listened to his words. One woman in the crowd stood out to me and I ended up watching her the whole time. She was standing about five or six feet away from me and had no idea she was the focus of my attention because she was so riveted by what was onscreen. She was a server – probably employed by the convention center – who was there to offer attendees drinks and collect empties, pick up trash for people too preoccupied to find a garbage can and that kinda stuff. She looked sharp in her black slacks and white shirt with a bow tie. I had noticed her before because she had offered me a drink from her tray, which I accepted and thanked her, but hadn’t given her much thought until I saw her watching the president’s speech. Her fingers were clasped in front of her mouth as though she was praying and, besides blinking, she remained absolutely still. There was no need for her to serve because everyone else was just as rapt as she was. I could tell this moment meant more to her than the majority of the people in that convention hall, though. Not just because of her body language and facial expression, but because she was black. And this moment was huge. Her eyes glistened, but I never saw a tear and she stood there and watched the president say “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” and didn’t move. Then, when the president concluded, and the rest of the crowd erupted in ear-shattering applause, she picked up her tray and went right back to work. I never spoke to her, yet she taught me so much about, not only how far we’d come as a country, but also how much further we had to go. I realize I haven’t said a thing about The Butler as a movie, but I will say it had the same effect on me as that anonymous woman did five years ago. I can’t think of a better way to sum it up than that.

Movie Thirty-nine: The World’s End – When it comes to Sci-Fi, Horror, Action and Comedy, you can usually combine any two of those genres and come up with a good movie. Any three, you’re going out on a limb, but it can still be done by an adept enough filmmaker. Try to do all four at once and you’re really asking for trouble. Edgar Wright has worked his way up, though, and has miraculously pulled off a brilliant “foursome” that entertains exceedingly on all four levels. This movie is amazing. The first half-hour or so is the British ensemble cast deftly exchanging pithy remarks in a rapid-fire pace that exceeds the laugh count of most modern day comedies. That in itself is a movie well worth watching, but no: Robots attack after exposition has been well established and the movie continuously cranks up the laughs, the excitement and the surprises until the end credits roll. This movie was everything I hoped This is The End would be (and sadly was not). I would have been perfectly satisfied if 2013 didn’t bring forth a film as funny as The Heat (because that movie was pretty damn funny), but The World’s End is such an overwhelmingly relentless amusement park of a movie, that to expect more from a motion picture is really asking too much. One thing’s for sure: There’s no point in making a top ten list of the best bar fights in a movie ‘cuz The World’s End contains all ten.

Movie Forty: The Spectacular Now – Romantic comedies, be they good or bad, all pretty much have the exact same plot. The details within are infinite, but the essence remains the same and thus is probably the most challenging area of storytelling to inject with enough originality to not feel redundant. On top of that (and perhaps even more importantly), the characters have to be extra likeable and more realistic than most other movies or else the audience isn’t going to buy into it. One shortcut towards achieving that is to go with the coming-of-age plotline. Because that’s such a convenient template for romantic comedies, I always have a tremendous amount of respect for films that venture outside the comfort zone of that genre. We all know that adolescence is hard, but few movies really truly demonstrate – to the point where the viewer is practically re-experiencing the anguish along with the characters – exactly how hard it can be at times. That’s a lofty goal to set for one’s self, but – when they hit it – it really makes for a powerful film. The amazing thing about The Spectacular Now is that it maintains that everything is fine on the surface. The characters laugh and joke and have a good time and yeah, they have their problems, but that’s cool, y’know? But emotions run high, vulnerabilities are exposed, and things come to a boil culminating into scenes that are as heartbreaking as they are touching. To explain how would be to ruin the movie, because movies like this, after all, are meant to be experienced along with the characters in it. And when they hit the point where they’ve become so overwhelmed that they need a shoulder to cry on, you want to cry along with them.

Movie Forty-one: Blue Jasmine – People often ask the question “Are you a Woody Allen fan?” as if you either love his movies, or you don’t. While there are a number of styles, techniques and subject matters employed regularly by Mr. Allen, I find his films different enough to be able to say I love some, like some and hate some. In others words, I find that question unfair. I didn’t see his previous film, but I did see the one before that and liked it a lot – enough to be excited to see Blue Jasmine. Unfortunately, I did not like Blue Jasmine at all. One common element that I think all Woody Allen films do have in common is that they’re character-driven. So, if you don’t like the characters, you probably won’t like the film. That’s certainly the case here. Much as I love Cate Blanchette (and even as good as her performance is in this movie), I really hated her character. Sometimes that can serve the story if you care enough to see them get their comeuppance, but in this case, I really didn’t care one way or the other. I just found her annoying and was waiting for something – anything – to happen that would catch my interest. That’s the second mistake: If your characters aren’t likable, at least try to make something interesting happen to them. Having failed both of those, I could have forgiven the film if it was at least funny, but it was not. A friend of mine, dissatisfied with Woody Allen’s movies from about ten years ago, said to me after watching Midnight in Paris, “He’s getting better.” Unfortunately, I don’t think Woody Allen’s films are like weather patterns. They’re more like pieces of fruit. Just ‘cuz the last one was sweet doesn’t mean the next one won’t be rotten.

It’s saying something that the biggest disappointments of last month were from Woody Allen and PIXAR. Maybe there’s hope for Hollywood yet. I can’t say many of the trailers for films being released in September have excited me, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past. Even in a worst case scenario, August’s films were good enough to hold me over ‘til November.

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