Sunday, June 23, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)


I had to go back and check, but Claudio (Fran Kranz) really does say this is Act 5, Scene 4 in one of Shakespeare’s better comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, “I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.”  This is one of the more racist lines in Shakespeare’s canon, but Joss Whedon is so adept at maneuvering in and around the bard’s words that he brilliantly has Benedick (Alexis Denisof) stand right next to him with a loud click of the tongue and shake of the head.  That is not in Shakespeare’s play, but it is just one of a thousand sly touches by Whedon.

Whedon abridged the play, but uses the exact same words, except altering one line, which is a Jewish slur originally.  Shakespeare was a bit sharp-tongued against 17th century minorities.  Otherwise, the words joust and rattle around in the air in present-day Santa Monica.  Rather than returning from actual battle, it feels as if Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio, and Benedick are returning from a Wall Street duel where all the action occurred in the boardroom. 

Shot in a lightning fast 12 days during Whedon’s break from filming The Avengers (2012), and using his own house as the setting, Much Ado About Nothing is a lightning bolt of energy.  The famous back-and-forth verbal quips between Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are completely engrossing.  Acker steals every single scene she is in, which is the majority of the film.  Emma Thompson accomplished the same feat in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film version; therefore, it is mostly the role of Beatrice that deserves the credit, but this should take nothing away from enjoying Acker’s wonderful performance.

The whole gang are practicing alcoholics with every counter covered in empty wine glasses and frequent flask sips along with a minibar stashed in every corner.  Whedon speeds up the ‘Sigh No More’ poem interlude transforming it into jazzy adult contemporary.  Claudio uses an iPod and Don Predro initiates a fist bump.  These are just a few of the delicious asides, which spruce up a very well known play.  Unfortunately, Much Ado About Nothing also comes with the Claudio, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and Don John (Sean Maher) baggage.

This story is a hefty part of the plot line but I am always happy to see it disappear into the background when either Benedick or Beatrice enters the room for another round.  It may not be all Fran Kranz’s fault, but Claudio comes off as a ridiculous sop and hams it up throughout.  Much of this comes with the character but Kranz did it no favors.  At least Maher did what he could with the always-dull Don John character and makes what Keanu Reeves did in 1993 that much more eye-rolling. 

Whedon chose to shoot the movie in black and white; I do not know why.  The lack of color takes nothing away from the film but it does not add anything to it either.  Perhaps he guessed this would be the one and only piece he could get away with employing such a tactic.  Nobody would want to see something like The Avengers sans color.  However, if you are already a Whedon fan, you are going to see a lot of actors pop up who have been in his work before.  Multiple cast members were in Whedon’s TV efforts “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, and “Firefly” and more were in his films including The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers.    

Much Ado About Nothing is always ripe for auteurs to reimagine just as Romeo & Juliet is there for directors interested in that tragedy.  Whedon succeeds hands down with a very risky move setting it in today’s California; Branagh kept his version safely in 1600’s Italy.  Filmgoers reap the rewards that instead of taking a vacation between shooting and editing The Avengers, Whedon chose to shoot another film instead.

Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: William Shakespeare, Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Deniof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson

Saturday, June 22, 2013

World War Z (2013)


World War Z zombies are sprinters compared to Night of the Living Dead zombies; they appear to be cousins of 28 Days Later zombies.  They work together in swarms and are a lot less sociable than the likeable guys in Warm Bodies from earlier this year.  They shriek instead of moan, their joints constantly pop, and it only takes 12 seconds to go from normal human being to rampaging, flesh-eating nightmare.  One thing all zombie movies have in common is that their respective zombies must have distinguishing characteristics to set them apart from all the other movie zombies.

Working out who first becomes a zombie and why is extremely complicated which is why almost all zombie movies skip that part and head right into the mass infection stage.  In today’s globalized and interconnected world, a disease which is rapidly transmitted from host to host and only takes 12 seconds to infect is the perfect storm scenario for any public health official.  Luckily, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a former United Nations super soldier who has a keen eye to detect the ins and out of infectious diseases.

Starting off in Philadelphia, we only get a minute or two of wholesome family time with Gerry, wife Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two daughters before all of humanity starts running through the streets in a mass panic.  Gerry is still in touch with his old U.N. boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), who can get his family to safety after a rough night in Newark and safe on board a U.S. Navy carrier.  All Gerry has to do to ensure some of the ship’s limited space for his family is hop on a plane, fly around the world, and figure out how to cure the zombie disease.

There are stops in South Korea, Israel, and Wales with a vicious zombie attack awaiting poor Gerry at each destination.  The Israel scene is the most intriguing as the walls the Israelis built to keep out Palestinians are now used to keep out zombies.  Unfortunately, we must check in with is family every now and then and see their trials and tribulations on board the ship juxtaposed with Gerry’s adventures fighting zombies.  The two do not stack up very well together.  Also, Gerry flies on a C-130 from the Atlantic to South Korea on one tank of gas. 

The action scenes, of which there are more than a few, are well done.  There is confusion, fear, and downright hysteria as thousands and thousands of zombies just keep swarming with no end in sight.  The two issues here are that it moves so fast and with so many edits it is hard to keep track of anybody for any amount of time and the stunting PG-13 rating.  Logically, director Marc Forster incorporates an abnormal amount of edits to simulate a frenetic pace and the fog of war.  This works a bit too well; keeping tack of Gerry becomes near impossible at times. 

The PG-13 rating removes anything edgy from the action.  A zombie movie should not be PG-13.  In one sequence, Gerry uses a crowbar for defense and we only see him swing it with no effect.  He gets it lodged in a zombie because he spends a good 10 seconds trying to get it out of the body yet all of it is off screen.  I am not begging for an obscene amount of gore and flying blood, but come on, it’s zombies on the screen; use them! 

Those audience members who read the novel by Max Brooks will most likely be polarized.  I heard some are upset that the location has been changed away from China, possibly due to political sensibilities, and I am sure there will be a hundred other little problems, which always come with a movie based on a popular book.  I am glad I have not read the book; otherwise, half of this review would probably involve telling you why it the movie fails on so many levels. 

Since this is all new to me, I liked it.  In spite of the PG-13 nonsense, Gerry’s around the world quest to find answers makes for a good film.  The end has a bit more of a passive climax than I expected, especially since the first two-thirds of the movie moved so fast and frantic.  However, World War Z is a good way to spend an afternoon.  

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Elyes Gabel

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bling Ring (2013)


Instead of calling her kids downstairs in the morning with, “Kids!  Come get your cereal” or “Come get your toast,” Nicki’s (Emma Watson) mom yells, “Come get your Adderall!”  The Bling Ring introduces us to a different sort of adolescent; a variation raised by parents who home school them based on “The Secret” and whose entire world revolves not around music, movies, or sports, but around designers, popular clubs, and well, bling.

Based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspect Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales, which catapulted the thieving crew to reality TV fame, The Bling Ring follows a handful of teenagers who troll gossip websites, confirm a celebrity is out of town, and burglarize their houses of cash, designer clothes, booze, and drugs.  Nicki is based on Alexis Neiers, one of the guilty pilferers, who went on to land her own reality show after all of the movie’s events. 

The story is not an indictment by writer/director Sofia Coppola of today’s youth.  Everybody realizes these kids are not emblematic of their peers; they are a unique subset best used as an example to represent the consequences of being raised to worship Prada instead of Princeton.  Getting a DUI, just like Lindsay Lohan, is seen as a badge of respect in this group.

The group, all Caucasian and mostly the spawn of financially well off parents, do not talk like they are from the Hollywood Hills, but rather south central.  They blast the latest hip-hop, rap along with lyrics that have nothing to do with their lives, and consider themselves special.  Their main hobby appears to be taking ‘selfies’ to post on Facebook.  Coppola intermittently takes the audience out of the parties and robberies to have one of the kids speak directly to the camera.  They spew the latest fashionable excuses such as, “I was suffering from self loathing” or “She was projecting her issues onto me.” 

Considering yourself the victim when you are actually the perpetrator must border on some sociopathic disorder scale.  After awhile, what begins as kind of a dare or a lark to break into a famous person’s house, becomes routine.  Coppola gives us a good look at the inside of Paris Hilton’s house, a gang favorite that they frequently return to.  Paris even cooperated with the film since it is actually her house they filmed in.  Coppola conveys the routine calculation of it all when two of the kids invade Audrina Patridge’s home but keeps the camera focused on the house from the outside of the house hoisted high up as if in a tree.  Lights turn on and off, the burglars move methodically from room to room, yet the camera only observes and waits. 

There are other breaks such as this when the action slows down, the throbbing bass of whatever club tune is blaring fades to whisper, and it gives the audience a chance to pause, observe, and ultimately shake their heads at the complete ignorance they are witnessing on screen.  Emma Watson does an outstanding job portraying a girl who is going to have a rough life.  Her British accent is gone and replaced the whiny pitch of someone you really would not want to get locked in a conversation with.  Watson obviously studied the mannerisms of vapidity and nails them down cold. 

Even though Watson is the biggest star in the film, her character Nicki is not a ringleader and occupies a supporting role even though she is the most interesting/audacious person on screen.  The leaders, Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) begin the whole exercise, select most of the targets, and maintain a nebulous relationship.  Are they boyfriend/girlfriend, just friends, something in the middle?  Coppola does not address their relationship because that is not what the movie is about, but there are so many scenes with Rebecca and Marc together one naturally starts to guess at what they feel about each other.

The Bling Ring is Coppola’s fifth film and ranks about right in the middle of her work.  Lost in Translation (2003) was one of the best films of the previous decade but I enjoyed the bumbling teenagers better than Stephen Dorff’s aimless movie star from Somewhere (2010).  Compared to Spring Breakers, a film from earlier this year following a group of girls not too far removed from these, The Bling Ring is downright profound even though it never passes judgment on any of the characters.    

Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola, Nancy Jo Sales
Starring: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann, Carlos Miranda, Gavin Rossdale

Thursday, June 20, 2013

This is the End (2013)


Early on in This is the End, a paparazzo asks Seth Rogen why he plays the same character every time.  His characters from Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and even his first gig on Freaks and Geeks seem easily interchangeable.  Since everyone already thinks he plays himself in every movie, Seth went ahead and co-wrote a script with himself as the main character…playing himself. 

Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, and Danny McBride lead a cast where everyone plays themselves.  Even Michael Cera shows up as Michael Cera although I hope he is having a bit of fun with his ‘character’.  This end of the world comedy answers that one question you always ask during disaster movies, “What would a house full of movie stars do in this situation?”

James Franco is hosting a party for a few Hollywood A-listers (Rihanna) and even a few ‘I remember that guy’ types such as Martin Starr when all hell, literally, breaks loose.  Did southern California finally get the monster earthquake everyone expects?  Is it an alien invasion?  Everyone has their guess, but the handful of survivors left in the house must now stop being nice to one another and get real.   

Franco, Rogen, and company have limited water, food, and hobbies that will keep them from annoying the hell out of each other.  Some distractions are first-person confessionals to a video camera, an amateur version of Pineapple Express 2, and dangerous adventures outside the house to secure more provisions.  The video one-on-ones provide a reality show format and even spawns some alliances between some members.  They may even resort to voting each other off the island. 

Co-writers and co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg also co-wrote Superbad (2007) which makes it all the more amusing to cast Cera, Superbad’s innocent Mr. Nice Guy, as the most coke-addled psychopath in Hollywood.  Another Hollywood twist is James Franco’s house.  Almost 100% concrete inside and out, this ultimate bachelor pad conveniently transforms into a fortress protecting the vulnerable movie stars from the blazing fires and monstrosities lurking outside.  More than once, our heroes cry out that these bad things should not be happening to them; they bring joy to people’s lives for crying out loud! 

Unfortunately, their jokes and vulgar shenanigans begin to wear thin.  Once the novelty of famous guys playing themselves wears off, there is not much else left to stand on.  Where Superbad is outrageously hysterical, This is the End garners only the occasional ha-ha moment; except for an extremely vulgar fight between Franco and McBride concerning the correct protocol on self-pleasure in a claustrophobic house of dudes.  The actors get in spat after spat with one another and throw jabs about their respective careers, some of which could be commentary straight out of gossip magazines. 

Just when I thought all was lost, though, comes one of the greatest endings of the year.  I will give nothing away, but if you are start feeling the movie wear out its welcome and notice you are not laughing as much as you thought you would, please stick it out until the very end; I promise you it is worth it.  Even though the ending deserves all the credit in the world, it is still not strong enough for me to recommend the movie.  There is way too much repetition with all of the verbal infighting and housemate intrigue that the cast succeeds not only in annoying each other, but the audience as well. 

Directed by: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Written by: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Rihanna, Martin Starr, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Jason Segal

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)


A lot is made of Superman’s ‘Americaness’ in Man of Steel.  His is an alien but he also is raised from an infant in Kansas by one of the most American actors from the past few decades, Kevin Costner.  His suit and cape are the colors of the flag, he has the all American name Clark Kent and he loves a girl with the corn-fed name Lois Lane.  Imagine for a second that Superman was Russian or Chinese; we would have a completely different view of his powers and strongly suspect his supposed altruistic motives to protect and save mankind. 

Beginning in the midst of a violent military coup on Superman’s, nee Kal-El’s, imploding home world of Krypton, father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) spirits his son deep into space towards the remote planet Earth to save his species.  Coup leader and supreme Kryptonian military commander, General Zod (Michael Shannon), vows to hunt down Kal-El to recover a codex which stores all future Kryptonian genetic material, or something like that, this is a pretty complex origin story.  The battle scenes on Krypton are a garbled mess and extremely difficult to follow.  Perhaps this mere mortal human is unable to comprehend the awesome spectacle of such a technologically advanced species.

Jonathan (Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent are the lucky recipients of Jor-El’s special delivery on their remote Kansas farm.  Raising ‘Clark’ (Henry Cavill) as their own son is no easy task.  His senses are on overload as he discovers his x-ray vision, super hearing, and super strength.  Dad is very anxious lest Clark expose his true powers to the local town folk.  Each time Clark is in the right place at the right time to save the day, dad wishes he would just let the commoners perish.  He correctly guesses that when the world learns they are not alone in the universe and that an alien walks/flies amongst them, they will recoil in fear.  

Unfortunately, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is to the art and science of investigative field reporting as Superman is to leaping tall buildings in a single bound.  She can sniff out and expose a deeply hidden story even before her morning coffee.  Ferreting out the Clark Kent/Superman identify crisis is all in a day’s work for her while it took Margot Kidder’s version of Lois multiple films to figure out who the nerdy guy in glasses was.  That is probably the main departure from Man of Steel’s ‘clean break’ from all of previous Superman film baggage.

There is no Lex Luthor, no quick changes in the telephone booth, and no bumbling Lois Lane sidekick.  Man of Steel is all about flashback sequences of Kal’s birth, his troublesome adolescence, and eventual discovery of his true self and lineage.  These adolescent scenes are the strongest in the movie; Man of Steel actually feels slower and more plodding when the action heats up.  Themes of acceptance into human society, mutual trust with the American military, and the bubbling attraction to Lois Lane are all addressed, but kept mostly in the background instead of fully explored. 

Cavill as Superman is decent casting; he is British and mostly known as Charles Brandon from Showtime’s The Tudors so credit director Zack Snyder with seeing through the accent and somewhat limited filmography.  Once Cavill becomes the true Superman, costumed up and clean-shaven, his sentences and manners become lobotomized.  This happened to Christopher Reeve as well.  Superman is so pure and good that he becomes the most boring person in the world to have a conversation with.  He speaks in simple sentences and trite phrases. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Michael Shannon.  He shouts and yells every single line, which I suppose an arch-villain with zero morality is supposed to do.  Shannon is outstanding when he is cast in his usual outsider role in films like Revolutionary Road, The Iceman, and Take Shelter.  He is quirky, introspective, and holds his emotions in deep reserve before they burst like a volcano when unleashed.  General Zod has no leash.  It’s about time Shannon gets a roll in a major blockbuster, but Zod is much more of a cartoon caricature than a multi-dimensional character.

Man of Steel is superior to 2006’s reboot Superman Returns and thankfully updates the tired storyline of the Clark Kent/Superman role from the ‘70s-‘80s Superman films.  However, compared to the snarky Iron Man with all of his flaws and wit, Superman is a stiff bore.  He can save the world a few times over, but I would much rather hang out with Tony Stark then Clark Kent.

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, Laurence Fishburne