Thursday, August 7, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

I really should just recuse myself from conversations about Guardians of the Galaxy - I'm in a frustrating position where Marvel is churning out movies I'd have adored as a kid, or even a youngish adult. But I can't bring myself to savor them, or even care much about them. And though I won't deny that I've had emotional experiences while watching many of those movies (including Guardians, it should be said), those emotions fly away as soon as I'm out of the theatre. But I went to see Guardians opening weekend, mainly because if I was going to find out what happened in it I wanted to go to the source, rather than have it spoiled for me on line. This outweighed any actual enthusiasm I had for the movie, which immediately put us at a disadvantage with each other.

In the act of watching it, I was engaged. After the earthbound, thriller-style heroics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the dropkicking of the Marvel franchise into colorful/boldly realized space opera is a smart decision. It's great to look at, but has a decent emotional core, with Chris Pratt likeable indeed as nominal team-core Star-Lord. His reconnection with his deceased mother toward the climax is one of Marvel's most bracing cinematic moments. There's plenty to enjoy there, and of course the thing has found a huge, probably record-breaking audience.


But dammit, all these little things kept nudging me out of it. Rocket Raccoon is an irresistible conceit, but the character himself, though resourceful and clever, is quippy without being funny, and comes across as merely bitchy. (This is a common trait to many live-action Marvel characters - it singlehandedly drove me away from the Agents of SHIELD TV show.) Michael Rooker is believably gruff as alien tough guy Yondu Udonta, but in his climactic action sequence outsources his badassery to the flying knife he whistles to. Villain Ronan the Accuser cuts a great visual figure, but rings hollow. The "outsiders find family with one another" trope was already hashed out in The Avengers, and I'm tired of the geek-stroking inherent in the subtext.

And the fucking 70s pop tunes all over the soundtrack - I like that Star-Lord's prized possession is a mixtape from his mother, but I kept wondering why a woman who had undergone the incredible experience of parenting a child with an alien would have such pedestrian taste in music. It's a commercially sound decision to go with more familiar, crowd-pleasing tunes here than, say, the progressive rock the story screams for, and many have mentioned the tunes as one of their favorite things about it. But the juxtaposition of Earth's pop music with high-flying space action is not new, and has worked better elsewhere. And I'll take Sammy Hagar's title track from the Heavy Metal soundtrack to anything from Guardians.

So why even write about it? I'm not going to convince anyone that they're wrong to love this movie (and wouldn't dream of trying). Maybe I'm just trying to figure out why these movies do so much for so many, yet find no purchase with me. Maybe I'm as irresistibly drawn to sounding off about it on line as I was to seeing it. Or maybe there's some subliminal illuminati shit in Marvel movies that I'm immune to. That scenario makes just as much sense as me willingly looking a gift horse in the mouth. Who knows? No conclusion here, just an aging comic book-loving cinephile talking to himself. You're a gem for reading this far. Thank you. Sincerely.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Harry Potter 2

An irregular but ongoing series of posts continue as I watch the Harry Potter series for the first time. And so, having excitedly gotten into the series and committed to seeing it all, we (my gf and I) move without hesitation into:


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

My gf said that she very nearly gave up on the series after this movie, and I can understand why. Like a number of sequels this one seems to confuse expansion with forward momentum. It's pretty much another Harry Potter story rather than the second part of an overall narrative, and though it's nice that it's stand-alone one wonders if it's really necessary. It does broaden the world of the series, introducing new characters (a flying car, a CGI elf, and an effete new teacher played with gusto by Kenneth Branagh) and realms around Hogwarts (including a forbidden forest chock-full of giant arachnids, the grandfather of which is voiced with lovely weariness by Julian Glover).

And the story does send Harry and Ron and Hermione back through many of the same plot points as the the first, with a twist: Harry receives warning that he mustn't return to Hogwarts, the platform on track 9-3/4 rejects him, nemesis Draco Malfoy becomes Harry's counterpart on Slytherin's Quidditch team, etc. And an engaging mystery drives the thing through some well-directed setpieces. But with everything feeling carefully reset at the end there's a feeling that this whole story could have been skipped over. That the production design and music feel less intricate only adds to the overall feeling of sequelitis.

I'm pleased to read that the filmmakers also thought this movie was a bit rushed; it seems director/producer Chris Columbus extended the production time for each movie going forward after this (which must have been a relief for John Williams, whose packed schedule around this time accounts for Chamber's less ambitious score). Quite excited for the third film, which I am assured is where the series well and truly takes off.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Harry Potter 1

My girlfriend has been waiting (usually patiently) for me to catch up on the Harry Potter movie series. I'm only now starting the series from the beginning, and can't account for why I waited - I'd never had anything against the series, and actually liked the idea of a youth-oriented fantasy series that acknowledged the aging of its characters and darkened along the way. Hearing the San Francisco Symphony play an extended piece of John Williams' score a summer or two ago stoked some curiosity, but only now, after some gentle (mostly) nudging from milady, am I watching the series. I'll be sketching thoughts on each movie as I see it here.


Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone

--Had known that the first story was more youth-friendly before the series veered into darker realms but we start off with a protagonist orphaned as a baby, then living life pretty much abused by his aunt, uncle, and cousin. Even without the magical trappings HP is pretty hardcore. D tells me that a number of religious parents groups have objected to the series and I'm not surprised.

--Potter hasn't even arrived at Hogwarts and I'm wishing I'd seen these movies theatrically, in 35mm. For whatever reason I wasn't ready to commit.

--Williams' score and themes are absolutely gorgeous. His knack for instrumentation and picking just the right tone for each of his motifs is undiminished. (I'd love to see him direct a movie, just to see what would happen.)

--The visual design is just as strong as the music - together they're more than enough to carry the thing. D is a total fan of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings movies, and was delighted that The Hobbit was extended into three movies. Her basic argument is that it means spending more time in Middle Earth, which I totally get. The world of Harry Potter is a fun one to inhabit, and the prospect of doing so over the course of eight two-hours-plus features is a pleasing one.

--I'm watching Harry's relationships with Ron & Hermione gel, watching the supporting cast come into play, sensing that there's more than enough character drama here to fuel the series. Something about the specific dark pitch of the fantasy here in HP1 is making me anticipate nothing less than SCORCHED FUCKING EARTH in Deathly Hallows. Alan Rickman's Snape and Tom Felton's Draco Malfoy are particularly intriguing.

--I muse more than once that this is awfully metal for an ostensibly youth-focused story. It pleases me.

--Daniel Radcliffe hadn't, by the time of The Woman In Black, escaped his reliance on facial expressions to register emotions. I didn't feel much from him in that Hammer movie, and so the performance of the young Radcliffe here isn't quite grabbing me either. I don't have the same problem with either Emma Watson or Rupert Grint as Hermione and Ron.

--For my problems with the lead, and director Chris Columbus' sometimes clunky storytelling, the world of the story and characters within it have more than secured my interest. I'm fully engaged with this thing and genuinely excited to see where it goes.

To the Chamber of Secrets!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Rik

As a media-loving teen in the 80s it was full-time work following up on my various media obsessions. I was huge into Monty Python, and had a jones for all related British humor, staying up late to catch Fawlty Towers reruns on PBS, for example. So when MTV, in a then-novel foray into non-music programming, announced the airing of their first episode of The Young Ones, I eagerly tuned in.

There had been a timelessness to Python, but The Young Ones was more recognizably NOW, injecting elements of punk and other contemporary music that was beginning to fascinate me. The Young Ones seemed to jump out of the set; Python seemed to fester sillily, but The Young Ones was a moshpit. But its celebration of rule-breaking anarchy was tempered with self-reflection. Rik, the in-house anarchist, was often revealed to have crippling self-doubt, often stopping short when considering the reality of the party line he spewed so explosively. I wasn't surprised that Rik Mayall, the actor who played Rik, was one of the lead writers of the show, since Rik seemed to have more shade and substance than his three fellow students. He was a nice warning to a budding malcontent, and, in retrospect, looms large in my personal lexicon.

I'd kept only sporadically in touch with Mayall's oeuvre over the last few years - some swear that Drop Dead Fred is a classic, but it seemed much less than what it could have been. But I was pleased that he kept working, and was sorry to hear of his injuries later in his career. I was sad, though perhaps not surprised, to hear of his untimely death.

There's much to enjoy and appreciate in looking back on his work - memories of Rik's more insane moments, of Mayall's more bittersweet and shaded television experiments. And indeed of his role in a strong, countercultural movement in British comedy that has made as indelible a stamp on comedy as we know it as the surreal antic of Python before it.

I raise one to him, smiling even as I mourn.

Thanks, Rik. G'night.


Friday, May 23, 2014

GODZILLA (2014)

The giant creature (Muto, it's called) wreaks havoc and devastation. A massive foot lands in the foreground. The camera pans up, up, still farther up the length of this creature. Eventually we’re face to face with it, and as if finally introducing itself, the title creature roars, a sonic blast recognizable from decades of giant monster cinema, but given a new, 21st century feel. And at this point in Godzilla, I start crying.


It was always going to be a difficult assignment. Director Gareth Andrews had drawn, for his second feature directing gig, the 60th anniversary iteration of a beloved fantasy series with a gigantic, iconic monster at its center. He was doing this in Hollywood, whose previous attempt in this franchise was a resounding failure. Even Toho Studios, Godzilla’s home studio, had retired the character indefinitely.

Happily, Edwards was scrappy enough to address the Godzilla mythos much in the way that Orson Welles took on the Shakespeare canon: an avowed fan of the series who wanted to do right by it and by its fans, Edwards nevertheless brings his own eye and ideas to the table. There are aspects of its story familiar from the genre: a wild-eyed scientist (Bryan Cranston, here) whose findings point to something nasty on the horizon; the title monster heading, with ambiguous intentions, to the point of conflict; the ascent of an unambiguously destructive other monster; the failure of the military to repel/contain either creature; the dire prognostications of a Human Who’s Seen Too Much (here scientist Serizawa, a minimal but earthy turn from Ken Watanabe); and the final showdown amid a major metropolis-turned-war-zone.

If these beats are overly familiar, they’re given new life by the energy Edwards brings to them. Edwards (and scenarists Max Borenstein and David Callaham) further embellish the scenario with a number of flourishes and details that make this Godzilla their Godzilla. Not all of these ideas land (at least one fight scene is cut away from cruelly early), and yet some of them, in this context, are downright daring (we’re suddenly seeing this fight on cable news, through the eyes of a young child whose mind is freakin’ blown)(and we’re kicked back to our own first childhood experience of kaiju action). The rogues gallery cast at the very least execute their functions dutifully; Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s munitions expert Ford Brody emerges as the movie’s hero in a somewhat meandering process, but he wins us over. Even Sally Hawkins, who subdues her usual exuberance in an ongoing presence as Serizawa’s aide, gets a sublime quiet moment in her final reaction shot, a graceful, moving coda that the movie earns. I wanna see her go hand-to-hand with the Controller of Planet X. Maybe next time.

Edwards executes this without indulging in overt fanservice. Edwards only really gets meta in a dialectic going on between American general Stantz (David Strathairn), who prefers to simply destroy all (of the) monsters, and Serizawa, who believes that Godzilla is an agent of nature working in the Earth’s defense. It’s as if the militarized action of filmmakers like Michael Bay and the mythic fantasy of Japanese cinema are quietly arguing their virtues and differences right up on screen. (Serizawa’s admonition to “Let them fight” effectively ends the dialogue, as effective a statement of purpose as you could ask from a summer movie.)

Yet even here, there’s more going on: Stantz isn’t simply a power-mad military man. Though all smooth efficiency and military might, his thoughts are never far from the civilians whose lives are at stake. When a plan is launched to defeat the creatures with a bomb, Stantz immediately plots to withdraw civilians from the blast radius, rather than write them off as a regrettable but necessary loss. This morality extends across the movie, with Edwards accounting at some length for the lives at stake; even Godzilla seems to tiptoe carefully around high population areas, and doesn’t even tear through the Golden Gate Bridge until those trigger-happy soldiers leave him no other options (yet even there do Edwards and co. account for the safety of a school bus crossing in his path). Compare this to Zach Snyder’s tone-deaf Man of Steel, in which Superman pummels Zod through buildings across Metropolis, collapsing buildings in his wake without a thought for those inside. (And a friend reminds me that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan killed more San Franciscans than Godzilla does here.) It’s yet another balancing act in a movie full of them, and Edwards manages to create blockbuster-level destruction without callousness or cynicism, thrilling us while keeping us mindful of the human costs of the unfolding story.

I’m not sure if Godzilla will turn out to be a favorite for the year. And yet it pleased both the eternally-young kaiju-fan and the older, more discerning moviegoer in me. It is a rare movie, to be acknowledged, that fully engages one’s adult sensibilities while satisfying something so primal, deep-rooted, and cherished as the love of gigantic monsters beating the tar out of each other.

(Gratitude to Aaron Luk and Chris Sellers for clarifications & discussion.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

STRANGER BY THE LAKE

So easy to describe this movie: Hitchcock's Fire Island adventure. A film blanc with cumshots. Surface analysis of a movie that, in many ways, is all about surfaces. But this story of a young gay man drawn into murder and obsession during a jaunt to a lakeside cruising spot is all about the depths beneath those surfaces. Dive in.


The whole thing takes place by the titular lake; we infer from conversations that there are restaurants, bedrooms, and a police station nearby, but we only ever see our characters in various states of undress frolicking, chatting, and hooking up in and around the lake, swimming naked, fucking in the forest. The idyllic, dreamy atmosphere is only enhanced by early chat of a silurus, maybe as long as fifteen feet, that lurks beneath the lake's surface.

We follow young Franck as he sunbathes, swims, hangs out, and hooks up, and follow his growing relationships with two men. Henri is a shlubby logger, shy but good-natured, who only ever sits by the lake and chats with anyone who engages him, without any serious interest in sex. And Michel is a gorgeous, experienced swimmer whose clingy boyfriend one night disappears.

Stranger by the Lake moves at a languorous but steady pace, rendering its landscapes and characters beautifully. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie is remarkably direct in depicting the sex lives of his characters. But the sex that many filmmakers build to is where Guiraduie begins. His characters' hidden depths and personalities, their darknesses, courage, obsessions are ultimately what truly fascinate Guiraudie; I don't remember being so artfully absorbed into characters in quite the way Guiraudie pulls off. Such depths does it plumb in its characters that we wind up looking into ourselves.

It is very much a film blanc, its menace lurking not in the shadows but naked in front of our very eyes, illuminated and obscured in the bare sunlight. But when the night finally falls, it falls hard.

Monday, March 24, 2014

KRAFTWERK

Though I'd long had an aversion to concerts that were simply a guy or two on machines, with light show/video accompaniment, I saw Kraftwerk's concert tonight without any real trepidation. My girlfriend summed it up beautifully afterward, saying that yes, it was four guys standing behind keyboards with video playing behind them, but it was likely one of the greatest concerts you would ever have the good fortune to see. Indeed, I'm pretty sure it was the greatest thing I'd seen since Einstein on the Beach.


Performing a set composed mainly of The Mix and (perhaps perversely) two-thirds of Electric Cafe, the quartet powered through an entirely electronic set synced to an impressive 3-D video playing behind them. The shadows of the band members became an integral part of the visuals behind them, and loaned a surprising warmth to the entire concert, with the members seemingly dwarfed by the world created on stage, their work rendered oddly, beautifully tangible.

My familiarity with Kraftwerk's music isn't encyclopedic; indeed, quite a few tracks I knew by name I encountered for the first time. Well-known staples like The Robots and Computer World benefited from a 21st century digital sheen, while other new-to-me tracks became new friends (Neon Lights sounds like Gary Numan's entire career contained in a single, achingly beautiful song; similarly, the update of "Radioactivity" to include references to Fukushima gave it immediate poignancy, a sad portrait of how somethings never change).

There's a feeling that accompanies the technopop of yesterday, a strange nostalgia for a future predicted in its metallic rhythms and analog soundscapes, a future that never happened. Watching Kraftwerk now is to step backwards and forwards; though these are all 20th century songs remade with 21st century digital tech (a neat tension paralleled in the projected video, using state of the art technology to meticulously capture the feel of analog imagery), there's nothing retro about a Kraftwerk show. High-tech spectacle was never less static. And for all of the technology on display, the overall impression--from hearing these simple, gorgeous melodies played huge to the graceful solos executed as the band left one by one during the climactic "Music Non-Stop"--is a palpable, unifying, glorious humanity.