Friday, November 1, 2013

Cinetopia Golden Ticket: October 2013

Now that I’m 2/3 of the way through my year of free movies, I’m starting to see trailers for films that will be released after my Golden Ticket expires (most notably, X-Men: Days of Future Past). I have mixed feelings about the end being in sight, but for the most part, I think it comes as a bit of a relief. I’ll miss the free movies, but at least I’ll be ending my tenure around the time the studios tend to play their Oscar-contenders. That season has already started, actually, and there were a few in the month of October that you’ll probably being hearing about around awards time early next year. Like every other month, though, October was also a mixed bag of goods and bads. Let’s review, shall we?

Movie Forty-six: Alien – Yes, I’m talking about Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi/horror masterpiece from 1979. Cinetopia showed it on their 85 foot screen as part of their ongoing science fiction retrospective. Actually, “retrospective” is kind of a generous term since Alien is probably the oldest film they’re showing out of the entire series (E.T. and Star Trek II would be the next oldest), but that’s okay. I’m happy they’re doing it at all. I know I’ve seen Alien on the big screen before (and probably more than once), but not this big and not digitally remastered with surround sound. That wasn’t the best part of the experience, though. Neither was noticing things on the big screen I’d never noticed before despite countless viewings on the small screen. The best part was the woman sitting a few seats to my right. I assume she had never seen it before given her audible reactions. I don’t mean she was talking (that’s something I absolutely cannot tolerate), but she screamed at all the right places and even gasped when the ship’s computer informed Ripley that the Nostromo’s crew was deemed “expendable.” I never get tired of watching a classic like this, but it’s people like her that remind me of what it was like to see it for the first time. I’m actually jealous that her first time was to see it like this. In a way, she’s one up on me.

Movie Forty-seven: Gravity – There’s an extensive scene towards the end of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men where Clive Owen runs through a battle zone and it appears to be a single-take shot. I don’t see how they could possibly shoot it like that and he almost certainly used CGI and camera tricks to make it appear as such, but I’ll be damned if I can see where or how they put it together. It’s a glorious sequence and anybody who’s seen the movie knows exactly which scene I’m talking about. Gravity is a whole movie based on long-lasting, grand, sweeping shots like that. The camera almost seems to be drifting in space with all the other debris as it floats in, over, around (and sometimes through) the characters and scenery giving the film an eerie and mesmerizing flow. I’d like to watch the movie again and time how long certain shots last before making a cut. The opening scene alone I would say is probably around 15 minutes long. The entire film is wondrous to behold and one of the most beautiful things about it is that it seems more interested in being realistic than beautiful. There are some truly gorgeous shots like Sandra Bullock’s weightless body drifting into the fetal position after passing out and being backlit like a human eclipse. Another is where she cries and her tears float away from her cheeks and into the foreground giving us an inverted fish-eye view of her weeping. This is one of those exceptionally rare films where 3-D is actually used as an effective enhancement to the filmmaking itself. It’s also rare in that the whole movie is essentially just a special effects extravaganza, but feels as real as any other movie I’ve ever seen. It’s so encouraging to see films like Pacific Rim, Elysium and Gravity using CGI as a tool instead of a crutch.

Movie Forty-eight: Machete Kills – Speaking of CGI, Robert Rodriguez had been employing computer graphics prominently in pretty much all of his movies ever since 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn. For the most part, he’s done a pretty good job. Sometimes his special effects border on “cartoony,” but - in those cases - that might have been the point. The effects in Machete Kills indicate he may be getting lazy, though (like I said in the previous paragraph, CGI can often times become a bit of a crutch). As one would expect, there are a number of scenes in this film that could not be accomplished without heavy computer animation and greenscreens, but there are also several that could, yet he used CGI anyway. For instance, it looked to me like every bullet hit (whether it be a blood spatter, a ricochet spark, or a dust explosion) was animated. I realize that squibs and pyrotechnics are probably more expensive and you literally only get one shot, but I would think Rodriguez would be the type to prefer the realism of old-school over the convenience of post-production in matters such as this. Especially when there is so much gunfire in this movie (and, I’m telling you, there is a lot). Pity it looks so fake. That’s nit-picking, though. The movie itself isn’t that great to begin with. I realize, of course, that Rodriguez is by no means trying to create an Oscar-winner here, but - even by its own standards - it falls short. It’s definitely excessive, but it doesn’t seem to really push the boundaries of bad taste like Planet Terror or Sin City (or the original Machete, for that matter) did. Those movies were guilty pleasures that he almost seemed to be daring us to watch (and upping the ante as they went along). Machete Kills seems more interested in being increasingly silly than shocking. In fact, it gets so goofy, it seems like Rodriguez is drawing more from his “kid” movies (like Spy Kids and The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl) than his grindhouse repertoire. The film promises a third installment of Machete. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Roger Rabbit was in it.

Movie Forty-nine: Captain Phillips – Whenever I see a movie based on a true story, I always wonder how much of it was true and how much of it was dramatized. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things because a movie should be able to stand on its own, regardless. There are some parts of Captain Phillips that seem unlikely (and, indeed, some of the real-life crew members from the Maersk Alabama have come forward with claims that the movie is inaccurate), but they still feel very real in the context of the film. Paul Greengrass is superb at making a movie look like it’s really happening in front of you. In the case of this movie, a great deal of it has to do with the casting, particularly the casting of the Somali pirates - every one of which is absolutely amazing and 100% convincing. A regular Hollywood director would probably try to cast Djimon Hounsou or someone like that as the main villain, but Greengrass goes with first-time actors who come across so authentically, that seeing this photo totally trips me out. Tom Hanks will most likely get all the credit for the good acting in this film, and he deserves every accolade he gets (particularly in the heart-wrenching final scene), but, if Barkhad Abdi does not receive an Oscar nomination for his role in Captain Phillips, it will probably be because the Academy thinks he’s an actual pirate.

Movie Fifty: Escape Plan – Being a big fan of prison break movies, I remember back in college trying to think up a some kind of impregnable futuristic prison that seemed absolutely impossible to escape from – and then trying to think of a way to escape from it. I had a good time envisioning the prison (and it was pretty bad-ass, lemme tell ya), but when it came time for my subsequent character(s) to break out, I couldn’t think of a way for them to do it. This movie has the same problem, except instead of making the escapists smarter than the prison, they’ve made the prison dumber than the escapists. Judging from my own contemplation of this scenario, I’m convinced that’s the only way you could make a movie like this. They should have done what I did, though, and not made the movie at all. If you wanna make a straight up prison break flick, go for it. In fact, the opening sequence that shows Stallone breaking out of a regular prison is really great and I was beginning to think this might be a pretty good movie after all. But, when he goes to the most cutting-edge prison in the world – so cutting edge, it’s not even officially legal – you would think the prison would be more competently constructed and professionally maintained. For instance, why would you have an access panel on the floor of solitary confinement that leads to a tunnel that will eventually take you straight to the roof via corridors with no motion detectors or surveillance monitors? Why would you take a prisoner from the infirmary back to his cell without searching him for pilfered contraband? Why, if you have enough forethought to inspect a new inmate for an implanted transponder and have it removed, would you not implant your own transponder to keep track of him while he’s incarcerated? Why, if you wanted to make somebody permanently disappear, would you pay an exorbitant amount of money to send them to a secret prison instead of just killing them? None of these things occurred to the makers of Escape Plan (or, maybe they did and they just didn’t give a shit) and so the burden of unreasonable suspension of disbelief lies solely on the viewer. Let’s face it, though, anybody who goes to a movie starring Stallone and Schwarzenegger in prison probably isn’t there to think. On those terms, you’re bound to get what you expect and it was refreshing to watch these old-school action heroes do their thing in a movie that doesn’t have “Expendables” in the title. They’ve both made better movies than this, but, on the other hand, they’ve also done a lot worse.

Movie Fifty-one: Carrie – Unfortunately, unlike Alien, this was not the original version from the 70’s playing as part of Cinetopia’s sci-fi retrospective, but the brand new and totally unnecessary remake. I’m in a somewhat unique position to review this movie since I’ve seen Brian DePalma’s film several times as well as read Stephen King’s novel several times. So, I know of which I speak. Remaking a classic horror movie (especially a particularly good one) is ill-advised, but I was actually open to a Carrie remake for two reasons: One, the original from 1976 was enough of a departure from the book that a new film returning to the source material might feel fresh. Two, with all the recent talk in the media lately about bullying and teens being driven to suicide as a result of being tormented by their peers, I thought a modernized version of Carrie could be quite profound and insightful. Alas, this new version explored neither one of those opportunities. It does actually include some scenes from the book that were absent from the original film adaptation (so somebody at least had sense enough to read it), but not particularly interesting ones. Example: In the book, Carrie not only destroys the prom, but pretty much levels the entire town immediately afterwards. I always figured they cut that out of the original movie because they didn’t have the budget for destruction scenes of that magnitude. Nearly 40 years (and millions of dollars) later, they still decide to leave that out but, for some reason, add the scene from the book where Sue and Tommy have awkward sex in the back of a car. And, just to make sure they were as unoriginal as possible, they also duplicate a variety of scenes (verbatim) from DePalma’s version that were not taken from the novel, yet still managing to make them dull and mediocre. Clearly, they were trying to play it as safe as possible which makes for a very wooden and uninspired movie that will almost certainly be forgotten years down the road when they decide to remake Carrie yet again.

Movie Fifty-two: Bad Grandpa – The TV show “Jackass” is nothing if not the lowest of lowbrow humor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny at times. Despite the fact they made two “Jackass” movies (and, as far as I know, both movies did well enough to make a profit), I don’t think the format is suited for a feature-length film. A medley of those pranks and stunts works best in half-hour doses and, after that, becomes tiresome. That’s not so much because the high jinks themselves become exhausting (although, they often do), but more because of the lack of storyline. When I saw the trailer for Bad Grandpa, I was delighted that they took the basic concept of “Jackass” and applied it to the blueprint of Borat to give it a more compelling flow. The outcome is about what you’d expect. Learning from Sasha Baron Cohen’s mistakes (and subsequent lawsuits), Johnny Knoxville makes himself the butt of his own jokes with innocent bystanders providing the “punchlines” with their genuinely shocked reactions (rather than being targets of ridicule). The movie’s content is hit-and-miss because the results are as random as the unwitting people involved. In some cases, the set-up is actually funnier than the payoff. It is hilarious at times, though, and they manage to inject the presentation of gags with more of a progressive story arc than you would think. The biggest surprise is the consistent, earnest, and charming performance of Jackson Nicoll as the grandkid. It’s difficult to maintain character in an improvisational “Candid Camera” scenario and this kid doesn’t flinch or back down at all, even when things seem to get unpredictably hairy. Scene for scene, he does more than hold his own with Johnny Knoxville and I hope to see more of him in the future. Even if this was his first time, he’s clearly a professional. This movie is in no way meant to be taken seriously by its viewers, but it’s oddly moving to see how seriously it was taken by its makers.

Movie Fifty-three: The Counselor – I suspect there are three kinds of people who will be attracted to this film: Fans of Ridley Scott, fans of Cormac McCarthy, and fans of anybody in the principle cast. Of those three, I’d say I’m probably in the Scott category above all else. I’ve read some McCarthy and enjoyed the film adaptations of his work (that I’ve seen) and I like lead actors (and there are some great supporting players in this film, as well), but - for some reason - the combination of those elements wasn’t quite the magic I was hoping for. I’d put most of the blame on McCarthy’s script. He tends to move slowly and be a bit long-winded - and sometimes that’s great - and it’s not necessarily bad in this case, but it is kinda “meh.” At times, it seems more like a series of dramatic monologues of existential reflections than an actual movie. Consequently, the sum of its parts are better than the whole. The second half picks up the pace a bit, but - by the end - I was somewhat disaffected. I suppose I should put some of the blame on myself because I had a hard time following who was doing what to whom when and for what reason, but I think I followed it well enough to get the gist. All in all, it would probably make a better book than a movie, but then again, how else would you be able to see Cameron Diaz fuck a car?

Movie Fifty-four: Aliens – I don’t know if Cinetopia did this deliberately in planning its science fiction retrospective, but bookending the month of October (and thus the season of Halloween) with Alien and Aliens was a thing of beauty. Like its predecessor, I’ve seen Aliens on the big screen before, but not with this high-end quality of presentation. Aliens is an impressive movie to begin with (it’s actually one of my top ten favorite films of all-time and has been since I was 12) and it holds up well in every category, so to see it with such a crisp picture and in-depth sound is mind-blowingly fantastic. I’ve seen the film probably 426 times, but never heard the facehuggers scurry through med-lab with such clarity. I never noticed Vasquez has a small tattoo of a tear below her left eye (if anything, I probably assumed it was a scar or a mole). I never felt the tremor of every footfall from the powerloader advancing to attack. Somewhat ironically, I never noticed the insights into PTSD and bigotry within the film. I also never noticed how all of the principle characters have a moment where they save the others. Ripley, of course, is the hero (with Hicks as a close second), but Newt, Bishop, Gorman, Hudson, Vasquez and even Burke (“You had your chance, Gorman!”) each have their moments of heroism. That’s the best part about watching movies we love over and over. Like people we love, we find something new to appreciate every time we see them. Oh, what a grand movie this is. It’s amazing that a film so dark and so horrifying could be so beautiful. I nearly wept.

While it’s true Aliens is a tough act to follow, I’m optimistic about November. I have no interest in seeing Ender’s Game, though. What else ya got?

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