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Movie of the Day: Jaws (1976)

Most of us have never known a summer without Jaws, and those of my generation can’t remember a time when the movies existed without Steven Spielberg. We grew up on a healthy diet of his films at a time when he was still a wide-eyed kid, bursting with ideas, filled with a passion for the medium and always keenly aware of how to entertain the heck out of his audience.

Whenever I see Jaws, I am always aware that I am witnessing some sort of miracle. This is a movie that by all measurable reason should not have worked as well as it did. It was based on a clunky, overwritten pulp novel; the plot was rail thin; it was directed by a 27 year-old film director best known for a TV movie; It starred a broken mechanical shark that had so much downtime that we saw it for less than 10 minutes on the screen. The entire production was the working definition of Murphy’s Law, and yet it all came together so well that even after 40 years we’re still talking about it.

In what must be the strangest bit of irony, the best parts of Jaws were the product of piecing together all the things that weren’t working. Steven Spielberg wanted the shark to be the star of Jaws. The way he story-boarded it, the shark would have appeared in half the movie. Remember the attack on Chrissie Watkins? That was to have featured the girl and the shark at the same time, but since the mechanics of the shark didn’t work right, he borrowed a note from Hitchcock by hiding the antagonist for most of the film. Fortunately for us, it was a tactic that he would use to great effect.

Jaws does best by what it does least. When we see the shark it is rarely in the cold light of day. Revisiting the film again – for the first time last week in a movie theater – I counted the number of scenes in which we actually see the shark, and I could only count three and they all take place in the film’s third act. Spielberg’s use of empty space was what made the movie work. We see point of view shots; long shots; cut-aways; a fin here, a tail there. At times we aren’t sure what we’re seeing and that absence of a clear view plays on our imagination.

The lack of visual reveal leaves our minds to fill in the blanks, and that creates an unexpected intimacy. Again, consider the death of Chrissie Watkins in the film’s opening, which many consider to be Spielberg’s equivalent of the  shower scene in Psycho. Chrissie goes in the water at night. As she swims around there is a point of view shot from under the water. She’s jostled by something that scares her, then for the next several minutes, she is thrashed about by a shark that we never see. The scene plays with our senses. At one point, she grabs a buoy nearby thinking that the attack is over, but she is then pulled away and disappears beneath the water. What makes the scene work is that we aren’t seeing these events from a distance. We’re in the water with her. There’s a startling intimacy to her death scene and for the rest of the movie, we have a template in our minds of the terror that our protagonists are up against.

The streamlining of the story is what works best here. Human characters are important but the plot needed to focus just on the shark. Screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley took out some of the book’s clunky narrative including the subplot involving Amity’s government being bankrolled by the mafia (which is why the mayor doesn’t want the beaches closed); and a bit of infidelity between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody. Plus, the ending, which is spectacular in the movie is kind of underwhelming in the book as the shark simply succumbs to a harpoon wound and drowns.

The absence of the mechanical shark also leaves us with a lot of time to get to know the characters, and that’s where the heart of the movie lies. It might have been easier to fill the roles with cardboard cut-outs, characters who are propped up as fodder for the mill, but Spielberg’s screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley streamlined the story and focused on the main characters, giving us a family man, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who suffers from a touch of aqua phobia; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) an ichthyologist who is in love with sharks; and a crusty old sea salt who isn’t a million miles removed from Captain Ahab.

All three of these characters are given dimensions. Brody’s familial bond is felt in a tender moment at the dinner table when he plays the “same game” with his youngest son. Hooper’s youth and experience could have been a tiresome joke, but there is a lot of weight to what he knows, he serves the audience with nuggets of information about the shark.

But the best role in the film goes to Quint, an old sea salt whose motivation for catching the shark are laid out in the film’s single best scene, a harrowing four minute monologue in which he recounts his experience on board The Indianapolis, the WWII naval vessel that was sunk by a Japanese sub leaving 3000 helpless sailors to be fish food for the sharks. Late in the film when Quint busts the radio with a bat to keep Brody from calling for help, his motivation is crystal clear.

Even the tinier roles are given dimensions. There’s the town’s mayor Larry Vaughn who could have been just a foil but reasons that the town needs tourism to survive despite the shark. There’s Brody’s wife Ellen, who naturally worries about her husband, but is also cool and laid back: “Wanna get drunk and fool around?” And there’s Mrs. Kitner, the mother of a boy who is killed by the shark, a reminder that in most monster movies, victims are dispatched with little fanfare, but she gets a moment when she is in mourning, reminding of the dire gravity of this situation.

Without human interaction Jaws would fall flat on its face. This is a very strange, very specific story that could be just a monster movie whose only destination might have been late night television. Shark attack stories are hard to tell. How many shark movies have been a success after Jaws? Even the sequels decline sharply in quality after this (all were sans Spielberg). Jaws 2 was entertaining but basically unnecessary. Jaws 3D was a silly excuse for 3D, and Jaws: The Revenge? . . . well, we all know how that turned out.

Seeing the film for the first time in a theater two years ago – my entire exposure up until then had been on television –was something special. First, the print. It was crisp and beautiful where most older films that have returned to theaters, especially those originally shot on film like Top Gun and Raiders of the Lost Ark, look grainy when transferred to digital. Not so with Jaws. The picture was beautiful, the colors popped and the immersive quality was something that I realize that I will never get in my living room.

Another advantage was the sound. Remember that great scene where the three men are in the hull of the boat drinking? That scene ends with the shark bumping its nose against the side of the boat. On television it makes a knocking sound. In a theater there’s a startling BOOM!  Also, John Williams now legendary score is enhanced. The music is in a slightly different pitch then the dialogue or the natural sounds. That makes the stinger cues, like the head that pops out of the side of Ben Gardner’s boat, arrive with a jolt.

Looking back over 40 years, it’s hard to believe how movies have changed in such a short time. When Jaws was released in June of 1975, there was no summer movie season. Film, at the time, was just emerging from the downfall of the production code and filmmakers were working with darker subject matter. This was the era of personal filmmaking from which emerged talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and of course, Steven Spielberg.

The most enduring legacy of Jaws was Spielberg. Here was a kid from the mid-west who had his heart firmly planted in the canvas of the movies, not simply as an artist, but as someone who wanted to entertain. If Jaws hadn’t worked, his career might have ended before it had even started. But it did work. Everything that went wrong with the movie bred something right with the final result. His career would redefine the movies, making them fun again, anticipating and in many ways creating the era of the blockbuster – both for better and for worse. His filmography is a tapestry of some of the greatest works of popular American culture from the last third of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Jaws helped redefined the art and the business of the movies. Spielberg gave the movies what it needed most, a bigger boat, a party boat, that we’ve happily been sailing on for more than forty years.

 
 

Movie of the Day: The Hangover Part III (2013)

As a comedy, The Hangover Part III is a colossal waste of time, a laugh-impaired detriment to the entire genre.  As a thriller, it actually works.  Let me put it this way, I was never bored by the movie when it was trying to take me on a thrill-ride.  Yet, I was nearly rendered comatose when it tried to set up a joke.  I actually mean that as praise.  Up to this point, critics have been mauling this film with razor sharp fingernails.  I’m not going to be one of them.  I come either to praise The Hangover Part III nor to bury it.  I liked the parts that I liked and I’ll defend it on those grounds.

Walking into the movie, I expected a washout meshed with a retread wrapped inside a movie that I was generally ready to write off as unwatchable.  Having seen it, no, I can’t say that.  For one thing, it is a true sequel in that tries to build on what has been established.  Todd Phillips takes the characters in a different direction by ditching the morning-after formula in favor of playing off that actions of the previous films and dealing with consequences that must be resolved.  The Wolfpack created chaos on two continents and now it has come back home.  I appreciated that.  Yet, my appreciation comes wrapped in a thick layer of unfunny comedy.

First, the bad news.  The focus of The Hangover Part III primarily settles on the problems of Alan, played again by Zach Galifianakis who was a bizarre third-wheel in the first two films, a character that I never really found all that funny. He’s such a bizarre doofus that I’m never sure if I’m supposed to be amused by him or afraid of him.  He says and does things that no human being on the face of the Earth would do or say without medication and time in a prison cell.  Galifianakis is a probably a nice guy but he has a comic persona that I find creepy and off-putting.  His character in the first two films was wisely third-string since a little of him goes a long way.  Here, he gets a much larger role and that’s a mistake.  His antics are more aggravating then funny.

As this movie opens, Alan has stopped taking his medication and has somehow acquired a very cute giraffe that is unceremoniously killed while in his possession.  It’s not funny, it’s just quizzical and sad.  Returning home, he’s given a talking-to by his very understanding dad (Jeffery Tambor) who immediately drops dead in a scene that I found heartless and cruel.  These two scenes really have nothing to do with the rest of the movie.  They are bizarre comic set pieces that could have easily been excised from the film.

The good news is that the larger plot is really kind of interesting.  It involves The Wolfpack’s re-association with Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the mean-spirited Chinese gangster whom they met in the first film when he jumped naked out of the trunk of their car and, in the second film, watched as he was carted off to a Bankok prison as part of a sting operation.  As the movie opens, he’s broken out of prison in a scene that, I think, is supposed to be a reference to The Shawshank Redemption.  I dunno, as I say, the attempts at comedy don’t really work here.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, The Wolfpack – which again consists of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Jason Bartha) and Alan – is still dealing with Alan who soon becomes the focus of an intervention.  The guys want to put him in an institution for his own good, but while driving him there they are ambushed by an angry gangster Mr. Marshall (John Goodman) who was robbed by Mr. Chow of $42,000,000 from a gold heist.  Marshall assumes they know Chow’s location because he’s been in correspondence with Alan.  And just for insurance, they decide to hold on to Doug.  From there the adventure begins, to locate Chow, get the gold and return it to Mr. Marshall.

As an adventure, I’ll say it’s a good one.  Having run through the morning-after plot of the first two films, I was glad to see this second-sequel moves in a different direction.  I was interested in what was going on.  It took turns that I didn’t expect and it held my attention.  I was interested in the fact that the movie was bound to be a sequel rather than another boring repeat of the same formula.  It seems that I’m alone in that opinion.  Maybe that’s just me.  Maybe I’m just punch drunk from recent sequels that have no energy or aspirations; sequels to Men in Black, Taken, Paranormal Activity, The Bourne movies, Star Trek, Ice Age, Die Hard and Iron Man – sequels that have no ambition to work toward anything but processing a brand name.  While it isn’t successful on all counts, The Hangover Part III gives me the feeling that someone was trying.  I appreciate that, I really do

 
 

Movie of the Day: The Hangover Part II (2011)

The general critical consensus leading up to the release of The Hangover Part II is nearly identical to the mass reaction that met Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.  That being, it’s the exact same movie only in a different location.  Critics decry that the filmmakers had no idea how to twist or turn a once-clever inspiration so they made the collective choice to simply regurgitate the original and make a few more bucks off of a brand name.  I say, not so fast.  Yes, The Hangover Part II copies much of the original plot but I think it would be unkind to dismiss this movie as a banal retread.

First of all, it’s plausible.  I could believe that four guys would get stupid drunk to the point of total memory wipe more than once.  Think about it, it’s probably happening somewhere right now.  Plus, given the twist in location, there’s enough that could logically happen that it wouldn’t turn out to be the same movie.  That’s where the movie succeeds.

The plot moves from Vegas to Bangkok, and that’s probably for the best.  Vegas is a hotbed of sin and vice but it is so regulated and organized until much of the potential raunch is squeezed out.  Bankok doesn’t have that problem and that’s what gives The Hangover Part II much of its off-the-chain zeal.

Two years later The Wolfpack is headed to Thailand.  Stu (Ed Helms again), the dork-ish dentist has split from his trashy hate-spewing girlfriend and is about to marry a beautiful, good-hearted girl named Lauren (Jamie Chung).  Not wanting a repeat of the Vegas fiasco, Stu resists a bachelor party and instead opts for a bachelor brunch instead – it’s indoors and it’s less prone to unpredictable shenanigans.  He wants no part of the Wolfpack mentality and even resists the presence of Alan (Zach Galifianakis, again) just to be safe.  But, of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if things went as planned.

Unwisely, Stu agrees to a campfire toast on the beach with buddies Alan, Phil (Bradley Cooper, again), Doug (Justin Bartha, again), and Lauren’s studious teenage brother Teddy (Mason Lee) who is Lauren’s younger brother and the pride of the family.  The toast seems reasonable enough since the beer was sealed but by sunlight there’s another mind-erased puzzle to solve.  The guys wake up in a filthy hotel room fit for the killer in Saw.  Alan’s head is shaved; there’s a Capuchin monkey smoking cigarettes; There is a severed finger in a bowl; and Stu is sporting a Mike Tyson-style Maori tattoo over his left eye.  Oh yeah, and Teddy is missing.

The rest of the movie does follow the same pattern as The Hangover as the guys try and work backwards to figure out the events of the previous night so they can locate Teddy and get Stu to the wedding on time.  What makes this adventure different is that without the safer confines of Vegas, anything is possible and the movie becomes a more competent thriller than a successful comedy – that’s actually a good thing.  Even still, it is refreshing is that Todd Philips doesn’t engineer gags, but plays the laughs out according to the plotting – the movie doesn’t aim for laughs, it gets there through the progression of the story.

The switch in location is an asset.  Within the squalid backwater of the Bankok ghettos, the guys are completely out of their element.  They encounter ass-kicking monks; Russian mobsters; drug dealers; tranny-hookers; car chases; boat races; And a bigger role for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong, again) who has all the information about the night before but is out of commission before he can give the guys some need to know information.

The characters this time seem a little more settled-in, but they’re no less clueless.  Their funnier because they’ve found themselves in a situation that should never have been repeated.  Bradley Cooper, the group’s apparent voice of sanity is a walking irony in that he’s the one who essentially got them into this mess in the second place.  Helms plays Stu with a great deal of vulnerability.  And Galifianakis?  I complained last time that his character’s personality seemed so off-kilter that you’re not sure if he’s suffering a mental disorder or maybe stepped in from a cartoon.  I’m still not sure.  He’s given less to do here and that may be to the film’s credit.  The situation in Bankok is so bizarre that his goofy shenanigans seem like insult to injury.

I think the word that follows The Hangover Part II is likely to be “underrated.”  This is not a carbon copy of the original save for the premise.  Philips has fun re-engineering some of the plot points but, unlike Home Alone 2, we don’t feel that we’re being manipulated into seeing the same movie.  Some may disagree.  I don’t think this is a better movie, but I think it’s a much different movie that shifts locations but allows the characters to play in that location according to its rules.  It’s a bigger and much more dangerous picture because of this.  It’s not a better movie, but it plays much less predictable than early reviews might indicate.  I dunno, maybe it’s me.  Maybe I was just up for a second go-around.  Maybe I’m intrigued by the mystery.  Maybe I’m just fascinated by whoever gave the monkey his own Rolling Stones jacket.

 
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Posted by on 07/02/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: The Hangover (2009)

By this point, I’ve seen enough let’s-go-to-Vegas-for-one-last-fling comedies until they are practically coming out my ears.  The strains of going to Sin City for a hedonistic bacchanal bachelor party has some naughty allure but it’s been done so many times that it has become a cliché wrapped inside of itself.  Nothing ever goes as planned.  Vegas is promoted as such a hotbed of sin and vice, yet it’s so regulated and organized that the reckless nature of our heroes comes from outside disasters.  Yes, someone can get hammered, lose all their money at the craps table and then end up marrying a hooker at The Chapel O’ Love who will refuse to get an annulment, but it’s not really the fault of Vegas being a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.   These things happen cuz peeple be stoopid.  They could happen anywhere.  Vegas just happens to have a rep.  But this particular set of scenerios has been done so many times that they are as telegraphed as a bus schedule.

That’s a nice way of saying, I didn’t walk into The Hangover last Tuesday morning with a heart full of enthusiasm.  This is the latest from Todd Phillips, the mind behind Frat House, Road Trip and Old School; all movies that I walked away from with relative indifference.

To my surprise, this time he got it absolutely right.  The movie turns out to be one of the nicest surprises of the year.  It’s very funny.  It’s clever.  It offers a premise that we care about.  It offers a premise that is reasonably plausible.  And again, it’s very funny.

What is different about The Hangover is that it takes the Vegas-romp scenario in an intriguing direction, setting it up like a mystery that is solved piece by piece.  Our quartet of heroes arrive in Vegas from L.A. for a bachelor party thrown for their buddy Doug (Justin Bartha), but they’re not exactly party animals.  They’re un-extraordinary schmoes who have spent more time thinking about cutting loose than actually doing it.  It’s almost like they’ve seen all those let’s-go-to-Vegas-for-one-last-fling comedies and decided to give it a try.

The leader of the group is Phil (Bradley Cooper), a good-looking Junior High School teacher who is married with kids, but apparently misses the old days.  There’s Stu (Ed Helms), a dork-ish square who lives with a hate-spewing girlfriend who treats him like a doormat.  And there’s Alan (Zach Galifianakis).  Alan is . . . well, I dunno.  He is Doug’s block stupid brother-in-law-to-be whose personality is so off-kilter that you’re not sure if he is suffering a mental disorder or maybe he stepped out of a cartoon.  When the gang arrives at Caesars Palace, he asks the check in girl, “Did Caesar live here?”

The movie’s first 20 minutes are, I will confess, kind of dull.  It’s all set-up and nothing that happens is all that memorable, but then the plot kicks in.  The gang gathers on the roof of their hotel for a final toast and then . . . . well, from there it’s all a big blank.  The guys wake up the next morning in a trashed $4,000-a-night hotel room and can’t remember a thing.  Something obviously happened the night before but the evidence doesn’t offer connective clues: There’s a baby in the cabinet.  There’s a tiger in the bathroom.  There’s a chicken running around.  Stu is missing one of his incisors.  Alan has his belly button pierced.  And when they call for their car, the valet brings around a police car.  Oh yeah, and Doug is missing.

The rest of the movie follows the same pattern of Martin Scorsese’s underappreciated After Hours wherein the insanity of the night comes into focus.  The mission becomes an all-consuming investigation as the remaining trio try and gather clues to their activities the previous night in an effort to locate their friend and (literally) get him to the church on time.  What ensues in a comic nightmare in which the boys run into one damned thing after another – a cosmic punishment, perhaps, for their hedonism.

What comes of these punishments are the meat of the story so I’ll be as vague as I can.  There’s a wedding chapel, a naked Asian man with a crowbar, a mean-spirited emergency room tech whose bedside manner could use some fine-tuning, a police taser lesson, and a run in with Mike Tyson.  The greatness of The Hangover is the way in which it starts slow and ordinary and then builds its story brick by brick and actually gets funnier as it goes along.  That’s a nice contrast when you consider that most comedies of this sort do just the opposite – they start off with promise but run out of gas fairly early on.

Plus, actually care what is going on.  The movie has a raunchy side but it’s not front and center.  Phillips wants this story to build so that the comedy comes from that and not trying for gross-out gags.  Plus, we care about these guys.  They are played by actors that I am unfamiliar with.  We like them, particularly Stu whose a successful dentist but is on the cusp of marrying a woman who will suck out his life force.  Ed Helms plays him as the put-upon dork who needs this weekend in Vegas to break out of his neurotic state of denial.  Bradley Cooper, as Phil, is offered the kind of role that promises great things to come – he’s a heartthrob in the making.  And Galifianakis?  I’m not 100% sure what to make of him.  He seems so weird that he almost seems to have been flown in from another movie.  He says and does things that no human being on Earth would ever do and I was perplexed as to whether it’s a stand-out or a draw back.

The characters aren’t fleshed out, though to do care about them.  They’re closer to types than to flesh and blood, and I think that’s the film’s one missing element.  In order for this film to tip over into greatness the guys needed just a touch more humanity, just a little bit more of the old El Corazon and I think the comedy could be just as heartfelt as it is funny.

Still, I’ll be thinking about this movie when it’s imitators are just going through the motions.  I’ll be thinking about the great mystery game it lays out.  I’ll be thinking about how they solved it.  I’ll still be wondering why there was a chicken in the room.  No one ever figured that one out.

 
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Posted by on 07/01/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2015)

I’ve already seen one miserable movie this year about a group of guys who do horrible things to each other, and here I am just a few weeks later dealing with another one. The chief difference between The Loft and Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is that one is a thriller and the other is a comedy. Both are equally wretched examples of their particular genre but I can say of The Loft that at least it didn’t contain a scene in which a man is forced to rape another man on live television while his fiancé watches from the audience. Nor did a contain a scene in which a man arrives at a large glass window with his penis hanging out. These are the jokes folks!

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is a miserable piece of garbage, a wholly unfunny comedy about worthless human beings who treat each like trash and still call each other friends. It’s a needless sequel, of course, to 2010’s surprisingly good Hot Tub Time Machine, but without that movie’s charm or human touches.

If you recall, in the original, four guys: Jacob (Clark Duke), Nick (Craig Robinson), Lou (Rob Corddry) and Adam (John Cusack) discovered a way to travel back in time using the titular hydrotherapy device. While screwing up the timeline, they also managed to make themselves unreasonably successful.

The sequel picks up with their success. Lou owns a successful computer company called Lougle; Nick has become a successful singer by stealing other people’s hit songs before they are written; and Jacob has a job working as Lou’s butler. The problem is that success has made these guys into terrible human beings. No, wait! What I mean to say is that it has made them wretched pieces of human slime. They do things to each other that are painfully unfunny, and most of their pranks revolve around their genitalia. In the world of man-child comedies, these guys have lowered the bar. There’s a moment in which a nurse injects a needle into one guy’s swollen testicle which forces semen to come gushing out all over Nick’s face. These are the jokes!

This time there is no John Cusack – apparently the producers didn’t ask him back – and therefore the most grounded and human character is missing. The sequel is led by Rob Corddry, a comedian that I’ve liked on “The Daily Show,” but here he’s given no filter. He plays Lou, a guy who has altered the course of human history and made himself a multi-millionaire, but is also a loud-mouthed bore, a slob horndog who habitually abuses his employees, his friends and womankind in general while pulling pranks that should justifiably get him arrested. He is completely without any shred of human decency. This is the guy who will screw his best friend’s bride in the changing room just before the wedding. These are the jokes!

The chief plot point in the film is that, during a party, an angry colleague shoots him point blank in the penis with a shotgun and so his friends have to take his corpse back in time to catch the culprit and stop Lou from being murdered. If they never went back in time and simply left Lou dead on the floor that would have been fine with me. I hated this character so much that every time I saw his wiseass smiling face, I just wanted to punch him. And that’s a problem since we see his big stupid grin quite a bit in 93 minutes.

The rest of the plot has the guys, now joined by Adam Scott, mucking around in the world of the future where they play vicious pranks on one another and talk to each other with complete and utter disdain. The jokes they tell in the future are the same tired and stupid jokes that they tell in the present. The comedy is at that annoying juvenile man-child level in which grown men talk to each other like unruly pre-teen boys, much of which is aimed at their penises. These are the jokes!

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 illustrates the fundamental problem with comedy sequels. It has a brand name so no one involved in the production feels the need to try. They’ve taken the smallest ideas from the first and ramped it up with cruel and inhumane jokes involving male genitalia and homophobia at the lowest possible level. This is the kind of bad movie that ruins your day.

NOTE: I’ve given the movie my lowest rating based on one unconscionably cruel joke.  In the future, it is mentioned, that one of the most popular shows is a reality show in which toddlers are caught in the basement of a collapsed building and have to find their way out.  When I heard this my mind immediately conjured up images of the The Oklahoma City Bombing.  It isn’t implicitly stated that this is a reference to that tragedy – I certainly hope not – but faced with a comedy that would use a joke that immediately brought that tragedy to mind just threw me into a state of sadness.  Again, I don’t know if the writers were pointing at that tragedy – in my heart I hope they weren’t – but the fact that this was part of my mental imagery turned a bad movie into an unreasonably cruel one.

 
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Posted by on 06/30/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Speed Racer (2008)

Speed Racer is not a movie, it is two hours of bad special effects fused onto a lot of music, loud noises and corporate logos.  From the special effects, I was not dazzled.  From the music, I wasn’t dancing.  From the action scenes, I wasn’t thrilled.  From the corporate logos, I was not inspired to buy anything.  Here is an entire movie made up of images that you might see on the video screen of a dance club.

The story is only a connective tissue between special effects.  It involves a kid named Speed who, from childhood, has had an addiction to . . . well, speed (not the pill).  His brother was a legendary race track driver who was killed on the track.  Speed grows up with the need for speed and the to honor his fallen brother.  Now grown up, he struggles with his Pop while fighting off an evil corporate suit who wants to give him corporate sponsorship.  Speed, we learn, has been raised to believe that corporate sponsorship is one step up from selling your soul to the devil (he says this).

The “movie” is based on a popular cult TV series from the late 60’s which had a certain square-jawed charm.  Here there is no charm, Speed Racer takes place in a strange netherworld that doesn’t resemble a coherent landscape.  We see real actors who are super-imposed over fake computerized backgrounds that seem to resemble the same six-color world as a board game.  What world is this?  What are its boundaries?  What are the rules.  There is never a moment when you get the feeling that the landscape of Speed Racer is a real place.

The characters in this movie are more or less superfluous.  They speak in a kind of listless boilerplate:
Father:
“You think you can drive a car and change the world? It doesn’t work like that!”
Son: “Maybe not, but it’s the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something.”

That might not bother me if such dialogue didn’t come from such a talented cast.  They’re all here: John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox from TV’s “Lost”  Plus, there’s the young and talented Emile Hirsch in the title role who was so wonderful in Into the Wild that it is heartbreaking to see him wasting his time on dialogue like: “Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy!”

At heart, this is a racing picture, but the thrills supposedly generated by the racing scenes are drowned by the fact that the races make no logical sense.  There is no sense of gravity so we never have the feeling that drivers are in danger at all.  There is a very lazy style of editing employed here in which we can never comprehend what we are looking at, we don’t know where one driver is in relation to another.  There are lots of flashes and noise and shots of cars whizzing by one another but we never sense that they are in the same space.  The tracks have no logic, they are all computer-generated, resembling the corkscrew roller coaster at Six Flags infused with neon lights. When the cars buzz along, they look like plastic toys.  They fly up in the air and to flips and spins and turns that no car in the history of the universe would ever be able to pull off.

Speed Racer isn’t filmmaking, it’s commerce.  It is the most cynical kind of commercial filmmaking, the kind in which a beloved brand name is bought and paid for and then studio executives convince themselves that their work is already done. The audience will be drawn in by that name, so they figure their work is already done.  That’s a cruel disservice to the legion of fans who have fond memories of that old cartoon show.  What will they get here?  Nothing.  Nothing but a waste of their precious time and money.  So too will time and money be stolen from fans of Speed Racer‘s directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, who turned The Matrix into a pop culture phenomenon.  The brothers, so talented with that film series and their earlier film, the great caper Bound have thrown away their talent and given in to the basist forms of commercialism.  What is depressing experience this is.

 
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Posted by on 06/29/2017 in Uncategorized

 

In Theaters: Baby Driver (2017)

For a young fellow like Baby, music is the milk of life.  Mixed and remixed, culled from the ambient noise of human motion and refitted into a soundtrack that guides his every step and every action, life has a rhythm and a composition that he will not deny himself.  When he walks down the street, his ears eternally plugged into a set of ear-buds, even the most rudimentary task is backed by a piece of music he has compiled just for the occasion.  When he is in the company of human conversation, he uses an old mini-recorder to record conversations that he then later recombobulates into a musical tapestry.  When his boss is asked about Baby’s mental capacity, he responds “Was he slow?” and Baby later turns that phrase into a private musical interlude.  It’s all for a cause, you see, not just battling a case of tinnitus but it has become an all-consuming obsession.  Baby’s lust for music becomes our lust for music and his compositions are still ringing in this critic’s head.  That’s a good sign.

You can have your clanking and clattering robots and . . . whatever Tom Cruise was doing in The Mummy, I’ll take director Edgar Wright’s lyrical and beautifully composed Baby Driver, thank you very much.  This is an action movie, a fun action movie edited and orchestrated within an inch of its life and reminding us of what movies use to be – a tingle of fun and energy and originality.  It has been put together by Wright and his editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss with precision and skill – they deserve an Oscar nomination.  They have fashioned a heist movie, one put together with style and a sense of fun.  For once, no one is trying to build an extended universe.  Baby’s universe is all we need.

Reeling from a childhood trauma that has left him nearly deaf, Baby (Ansel Elgort) – for that is the moniker he gives people – works as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) the manager of a robbery syndicate in which he hires three crooks to pull the job and then puts them in the getaway car to be driven by Baby.  Behind the wheel, this young fellow is something to behold.  Using a carefully chosen song as a timer for the robbery, he can smoke through traffic like a dream, turning and drifted and dodging police cars and spike strips in a manner that would leave that Fast and Furious gang coughing up dust.  He’s very very good at his job.  He’s so good in fact, that the other crooks underestimated him.  Presently the trio, which includes a hot-headed loose cannon named Bats (Jamie Foxx), a seasoned veteran named Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his babalicious wife Darling (Elia González), doesn’t trust the kid.  They take his youth, not to mention his silence, as suspicion that he might be a narc.  Underestimating the kid’s skill is their undoing.  You sense from this gang, particularly from Bats, that if they just trusted his skill and stopped trying to pad their own egos then everything might be just fine.

Maybe they should adopt his rhythm.  As they jump into his getaway car, he brings up “Bellbottoms” by The John Spencer Blues Explosion and seems to compose his getaway in time to the music.  Before the robbery he tells his cohorts to wait – “I gotta start the song over.”  The action works in unison to the music – and then there’s the further step that the ambient noise of everything from squealing tires to police sirens become part of the composition.  Returning to the hideout, the song doesn’t end.  Everything in the frame becomes part of the music from the stacks of money being counted to the chatter of conversation.  It’s all in their air, and Wright doesn’t waste any of it.

The story is not nearly as compelling as the atmosphere that drives it, but we still care about what happens.  Baby is in debt to Doc and is presently pulling his last job before he is let off the hook.  Looking ahead at his prospects, he comes across a pretty waitress named Deborah (Lily James from the live-action Cinderella) who seems so uncomplicated that she could almost be transparent.  His entire association with her never-the-less gives weight to the film’s later scenes when the plan goes belly up thanks, in large part, to Bats’ hair-trigger suspicions.  This is a story that builds and builds, telling us the major plot points as they unfold rather than making it all clear at the beginning and then drawing a through-line to the next action scene.  Of this, I will say no more.

Edgar Wright, in his other films from Scott Pilgrim to The World’s End is becoming the master of the extra layer.  It’s one thing to put people in a scene and move them around but it’s quite another them an extra dimension.  It’s one thing to introduce a weapons-dealer but another to have him lay out a monologue about his inventory as if he’s selling pork products.  Every character here is someone we remember from the burly short-order cook to the kindly postal worker whose face we remember later in a key moment of danger.  The actors in the supporting roles seem to have been hired for their faces.  We remember them and that is key.

This movie is like a breath of fresh air.  It is, at last, an action movie in which the director is directing the action and not hoping that a lot of whiz-bang forward-motion will be enough.  Great action scenes keep the action in the center of the frame and use the editing, not as punctuation, but as the notes in the visual composition.  That’s what is special here.  Wright and his editors are really putting together a feast for the eyes and the ears.  Our brains have to connect with each and every piece of the visual narrative so that we can follow along with the flow.  Too much quick editing without thought or orchestration becomes convoluted and we give up – we become passive and are excised from the moment instead of becoming part of it.
Think of the greatest action movies from Die Hard to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lethal Weapon to Bullitt the more recent KingsmanWith its action scenes Baby Driver rises to that league in a movie that is put together brilliantly and with loving care – somebody wanted to make this movie.

 
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Posted by on 06/28/2017 in Uncategorized