Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2013 Recap: Further Up the Ladder (Part Two)

 Moving right along, we continue navigating the better (but not best) choices 2013 had to offer, warts and all. This actually brought up an interesting question the other day: is it fair to expect a movie to be perfect? One of the easiest caveats used to overlook a film's flaws is to say "well, it isn't perfect, but it's still _____" which begs the question: did you expect it to be perfect? It seems to me that there are two opposing positions to this one, based largely on what kinds of movies audiences / critics / scholars go to see. The answer most people are going to give is "no," usually accompanied by some variation on the phrase "well, it's not Shakespeare, but..." as though a film can't aspire to be great (and yes, I've heard the Shakespeare line repeatedly in reference to Michael Bay movies). But it's true, disappointment reigns supreme so often that many people brace themselves for something lesser and are happy when it meets or exceeds lowered expectations.

 The flipside of this argument, the one I heard from college professors for four years, is that "of course you should expect it to be perfect, because why would you watch anything less?" This is a more exclusionary position, one that posits that if it isn't already a classic, it's not worth bothering with. And while it is true that there are more classic films out there than I or many of you will ever have time to watch, making this argument excludes the possibility that there will ever be any more films considered "classic" made after whatever arbitrary cut-off date is selected. There is something to be said about the lack of timelessness of some modern films (off the top of your head, can you remember my favorite movies from last year, and have you seen any of them since?). It is hard to tell what will last and what will fade in thirty, fifty, even a hundred years, but I don't know that I buy the argument "if it's not already declared perfect, don't bother." I'd rather take a chance, go in not sure of what I'm going to get, and let the movie do its work.

 It's not always perfect (as we'll see a few times below), but it can be pretty damn good, and film history has plenty of "pretty damn good" movies, too. If you can be bothered to lower yourself to find them, that is.

 From Elysi-mrm to Riddick-ulous, Plus More Diesel, Ah-nuld and Sly.

 Unfortunately, Elysium is not "pretty damn good," which is a shame because it should be. All the right pieces are in place: Neill Blomkamp, the writer / director of District 9, follows up his first film with another high-minded dystopian science fiction story, drenched in social commentary. Returning with him is Sharlto Copley, and new to the party are Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, and Faran Tahir as people on either side of the divide between a pollution ravaged Earth and the orbiting utopian community of Elysium. As he did with District 9, Blomkamp demonstrates an ability to blend visual effects with actual environments in such a way that they often appear seamless, with a lived in quality I haven't seen since the first Star Wars.

 But somehow, despite the wealth of riches in nearly every aspect of the film, Elysium falls flat. The early sections, where Damon's Max is just a down on his luck ex-con trying hard to to go straight, are the best. The system, with its robot police and automated parole officers make it impossible for him to get by (his bad attitude doesn't help), and when his boss forces him to put his health at risk, the ensuing radiation exposure is, well, toxic. That's where the meat of Elysium really is, where the cover art you've seen comes from. Max builds the same officers that give him so much grief, and when he's poisoned and the owner (Fichtner) tells his boss to fire him, there's no chance of surviving. On Earth, anyway. Of course he can try to strongarm his way up to Elysium, where the ultra-rich fled to live peaceful lives (except when they shoot down any ship trying to illegally land, that is).

 In order to do that, Max is going to need help, so Julio (Luna), leader of an underground movement trying to take down Elysium, agrees to turn him into a quasi-cyborg as long as he'll take a program up to the station that would allow anyone to use the medical pods that can heal anything. There's also a power struggle of sorts in Elysium, as Delacourt (Foster) is orchestrating a coup of sorts to take down President Patel (Tahir) with the help of John Carlyle (Fichtner). Throw in Max' childhood friend (Braga) and her dying daughter (Emma Tremblay) and Delacourt's Earthbound muscule Kruger (Copley) and things are in motion.

 For all of the thrilling action and visual spectacle, Elysium is a strangely flat movie. I'm not sure that Blomkamp really knew what he wanted to say other than "the 1% is bad," and that's not enough to sustain the narrative thrust of the film. It's a strangely unengaging film as it goes along, one with any number of questionable decisions made by characters who shouldn't know things they do but the script doesn't have any other way forward. I found myself less interested in Max taking down Elysium and more engaged in his back and forth with Kruger, a truly ruthless bastard. When it was over, it was clear that I was supposed to be happy that Elysium (and health care) was available for everyone, but the not even vaguely subtle political commentary arrives with all the depth of a stoned college dorm room conversation. Elysium is inert, despite all of the whiz-bang kinetic action, and that's a shame.

 I already mentioned Riddick in December, and watching the "Unrated Director's Cut" effectively reinforces my opinion that it's much better than The Chronicles of Riddick, but maybe not as good as Pitch Black (in fact, maybe a bit too much like Pitch Black). It's a welcome return to form for the series and I'm absolutely looking forward to the next film. Well, there's a slight reservation, and if you read the earlier review, you know that the one carryover from The Chronicles of Riddick I wasn't gaga about is the necessary inclusion of the (sigh...) Necromongers, including Karl Urban's Vaako. I write a lot of silly things on this blog, but Necromonger is such a ridiculous term that even I'm embarrassed to have to expose you to it. The most notable addition to the unrated cut of Riddick are extended prologue and epilogue scenes with more Monger-ing, including the set-up for a sequel where Vaako didn't betray Riddick (it was the other guy) and has, in fact, crossed over to the "Underverse." Look, David Twohy, I'm still mostly on board with the continuing adventures of Richard Riddick, but can we please not go into more of this stupid shit like in the second movie? Please?

 On the subject of Vin Diesel and stupid shit, I have to say how continually impressed I am at the Fast and the Furious franchise's ability to defy the law of diminishing returns. Six films in should be in Freddy's Dead territory by now, where the studio doesn't care and the creative team is getting weird and throwing in 3D, but director Justin Lin (who came in with the I assumed was DTV Tokyo Drift) is hellbent on keeping things onward and upward. I didn't watch the first three movies because I don't care about street racing culture or (as Clint Eastwood put it in Gran Torino) "faggy spoilers" and neon green paint jobs, but when Dwayne Johnson joined the cast for Fast Five, I tuned in. Reviews were surprisingly positive, and painted the film as something more like an Ocean's Eleven for meatheads than a movie about car drifting.

 So I watched Fast and Furious because Five begins where four ends, and it seemed to be an all right, high octane movie. I really liked Fast Five, which is exactly like an Ocean's Eleven for meatheads, and Johnson's Hobbs was a great counterpoint to Diesel's Dominic Toretto. The fights were tough, the racing was minimal, but the chase scenes were impressive and on a scale not seen since Bad Boys 2 (uh oh, Michael Bay comparison... not good...). So for the first time in the series, I was looking forward to a Fast and Furious movie. And let me tell you, Furious Six did not disappoint.

 I'm glad I went to see it with friends because the smell of testosterone and meathead cologne was thick in the theatre, but Furious Six had something for everybody. You had your action, your comedy, your stunts, two silly (but brief) street races, and everybody from Fast Five plus a few additions. Notable for me was the inclusion of Gina Carano (Haywire) as Hobbs' partner Riley, who has a knock-down, drag out fight with returning Michelle Rodriguez's Letty, juxtaposed with Han (Sun Kang) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) getting their asses handed to them by one guy.

 Look, the Cap'n isn't going to pretend that Furious Six is for everybody, or even most people. It's the kind of goofball action movie where someone can crash into a guard rail, fly across a bridge, and catch someone who's been thrown from a tank and land safely on another car's windshield. That happens. It's borderline Commando-level dumb, and to be honest it was more engaging than any of the heavy-handed, muddled "thinking man's action" of Elysium. Sometimes the lizard brain deep down in the male psyche (not actually a penis joke, althouth it occurs to me some of you might read it that way - it's actually a weird reference to a religious studies class I took) needs to see big dumb fun, and Furious Six handles that with aplomb.

 The death of Paul Walker is going to seriously test the F&F franchise's ability to keep going up, but the addition of a mid-credits villain linked to Luke Evans' antagonist, the inclusion of Kurt Russell and incoming director James Wan (Death Sentence) has me hopeful for next year. We'll see, because I'm not watching Bad Boys 3 if and when that comes out (take that, Bay!).

 I'll close out this section with a few additional thoughts on The Last Stand and Escape Plan (already reviewed in the available links): while I really didn't like Bullet to the Head, I thought The Last Stand was a pretty good, straightforward action movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger learning to deal with being older. Sly has pretty much just continued to push forward and not really acknowledge age since Rocky Balboa (in fact, Rambo pretty much refuted the "older Stallone era" of Balboa), but Arnold does look older. He sounds older, and his body isn't chiseled out of marble the way it once was (or is it granite? I'm not sure on that one).

 The Last Stand was a good look at how Arnold ages onscreen (something he never really acknowledged prior to becoming the Governator), but I feel like Escape Plan uses the "aged wine" version of Schwarzenegger in a much better way. He's just a grizzled veteran who can still be a tough guy, but one old enough to know better than to pick every fight. Repeatedly in the film you see that he's happy to be the "muscule" for Sly's Ray Breslin, but it's almost always off-screen. There's a great (pun intended) punchline to Ray's request for one inmate's glasses to Arnold's Rottmayer when the camera cuts to the next day and the guy has a black eye and no glasses. I'm a little iffy to bringing Ah-nuld back as the Terminator, but it's what the people expect. Oh well, it's nice to know he can play the tough old bastard when he needs to.

The Wrath of Smaug and Other Sundry Tales of Elves Into Darkness.

 If you watch Star Trek: Into Darkness and never think about it, even for a second, you'll have a blast. It's an unfettered rollercoaster of thrills and chills, of action punctuated by chuckles, with great chemistry between cast members, and maybe even a thing or two to say about the way society responds to terrorism. However, if you start to think about the movie AT ALL, things start to fall apart, and compound into bigger problems that threaten to cripple your very ability to enjoy the movie in the first place. That is your warning, and while the original review will cover many of the reasons, I'm going to very quickly explain why I feel this is the case.

 I'm done giving Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, and Robert Orci grief over the screenplay. It's a dead horse and I'm tired of beating it. The same goes for JJ Abrams and lens flares and trying to turn Star Trek into Star Wars and any of the other arguments about why the rebooted Star Trek isn't really Star Trek. I get it. This is the internet and everything sucks now, etc. Okay. We got that out of our systems, and those tired old arguments aren't going to change what IS. And what Star Trek: Into Darkness IS is the little brother who grew up in the shadow of his more famous, more beloved older brother. The one who casts a shadow so long over fans and casual viewers that you can't even reboot the series and start fresh with a Star Trek 2 without at least considering the fact that it's going to be compared to The Wrath of Khan.

 It can't be helped, because even people who don't really know Star Trek that well know what it is. Other than The Voyage Home, it might be the only one they know. Star Trek fans know it because it kept them awake, unlike The Motion Picture (cue TMP defenders in five, four, three, two...), and the movie tied directly into the show. It was also very well written, acted, and directed, which at the time (and even in the wake of Star Trek V) is kind of surprising for a Star Trek movie. Most of the target audience for Star Trek: Into Darkness grew up with The Wrath of Khan, so you can't help but want to compare yourself to the older brother everybody loves. You can try to fight to be your own movie, to outdo your brother in ways, or to alter expectations, but it's still just going to be about "see? I can do that too!"

 And that's the problem in a nutshell. It didn't have to be, because the Admiral Marcus storyline in and of itself could have sustained the movie. I'm sticking with that one. Khan didn't have to be in Into Darkness at all and the story would still work. Hell, Benedict Cumberbatch could still be some kind of genetically engineered super soldier who wasn't named Khan - you could seriously just change him name and pull out the other scenes patently designed to remind people that "The Wrath of Khan is a Star Trek movie and you have already seen it"  and only need to make minor changes to the ending. There's a pretty solid nu-Trek movie already in Into Darkness, and I wish that the Khan nonsense hadn't been there, but it is, so be it. C'est la vie. We move forward.

 On to something I enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch more in (at least in one of his roles, anyway), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. For better, for worse, Peter Jackson's middle entry into his second Middle Earth trilogy is an improvement over the uneven An Unexpected Journey. It may turn out to be the first time that an extended cut puts more of the book back into the movie, I suspect. It's clear at this point that Jackson is less concerned with adapting The Hobbit as a novel and more keen on more explicitly connecting the story of the One Ring all the way from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, creating one unified story.

 I had wondered why, in so many reviews, Beorn's name never appeared, until I saw The Desolation of Smaug and realized that the entire sequence at his home had been reduced to what amounted to a cameo. I think we see Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) more as a bear than we do speaking to Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and the dwarves, and there's certainly no sense of taking time to marvel at his home, let alone the way he's tricked into accepting Thorin's company for the night. The entire scene is reduced to an exposition dump, and we're off. Similarly condensed is Mirkwood and the captivity in Thranduil's kindgom, to the point that I was taken aback how quickly Jackson was breezing through long sections of the book. Considering how drawn out the first film was, it seemed strange to spend so little time with the spiders or lost in the woods.

 What does stand out in Mirkwood, however, is the first real indication of how Jackson is turning The Hobbit trilogy into The Lord of the Rings, the Prequel: Bilbo develops a strong attachment to the Ring that doesn't really exist in the novel, but is consistent with the way it's been presented in the earlier trilogy. For obvious reasons (Tolkien hadn't written The Lord of the Rings, for one), it's just a ring in The Hobbit, but in light of what audiences already know about the One Ring, it would be strange that it had no effect on Bilbo whatsoever. Jackson handles it well, and it's limited mostly to Mirkwood (aside from one reference by Smaug to a "precious" piece of gold entering his lair).

 The biggest additions come when the dwarves are captured, and instead of just Thranduil (Lee Pace), they meet Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), neither of whom are in The Hobbit. In fact, Tauriel is wholly a creation of Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and whatever degree to which Guillermo del Toro was involved in The Desolation of Smaug. You might think I'd take umbrage with a completely invented character, especially one involved in a sort-of love triangle that turns out to have more than a little in common with Star Wars, but for what Jackson is doing, I'm actually fine with her. Make no bones about it, in The Desolation of Smaug, Tauriel exists to get Legolas out of Mirkwood and to urge him to be more involved in Middle Earth. It's part of a lot of set up for the Battle of the Five Armies in There and Back Again, but her presence is welcome and adds some dramatic heft to this wildly divergent take on the story.

 I was less impressed with Lake Town and for the moment am not certain what point separating the dwarves serves - there's certainly no tension in Kili (Aiden Turner), Oin (John Callen), Fili (Dean O'Gorman), and Bofur (James Nesbitt) being there when Smaug arrives because anybody who's read The Hobbit knows why Bard (Luke Evans) is so important. He's actually even more important now, with a back story that ties him to Dale and the arrival of Smaug and a significance to the black arrow he'll eventually use, but that is also left mostly for the next film. The normally reliable Stephen Fry is a more loathsome Master of Lake Town than I'd expected, with a stunning lack of depth that might be acceptable in a children's book but sticks out like a sore thumb when everybody else is given more depth.

 On the other hand, the sequence with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Smaug (Cumberbatch) in Erebor is a highlight of the film. Like "Riddles in the Dark" from An Unexpected Journey, Jackson sticks close to the book for their back-and-forth, choosing to slowly reveal the dragon as he taunts the "thief." The second part of the sequence in Erebor, like the "barrel" sequence earlier in the film, is expanded / altered, but not in a way that bothered me. Yes, it's another action sequence in the midst of two others (the heretofore nonexistent goblin assault on Lake Town and Gandalf's fight in Dol Guldur - more on that in a minute), but it gives the dwarves something to do other than stand outside of the Lonely Mountain and wait for Bilbo. Thorin (Richard Armitage), has the opportunity to demonstrate that he can lead his men into battle and puts together a reasonably good plan to incapacitate Smaug (even if it doesn't work). Coupled with his growing obsession over the Arkenstone (which, thanks to a prologue at the Prancing Pony in Bree, is also even more important), Thorin is a more involved character in the story.

 Now, on to Gandalf and Dol Guldur, with the briefest of appearances from Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McKoy). If anything in The Desolation of Smaug screamed "we'll get to this in the next one," it's this sequence. Yes, Jackson decided to directly link Azog and Bolg and the Goblin army to Sauron heading into There and Back Again. He doesn't even waste time pretending that The Necromancer (Cumberbatch) is anyone other than Sauron, and after a visually impressive battle of magic, gives us a visual link between the physical persona from the prologue in Fellowship of the Ring to the Eye we know from the rest of the film. And then Gandalf is imprisoned and "we'll totally cover this later!"  Like the end of the film, which can either be read as "what a cliffhanger!" or "wait, that's how they're ending this?" the entire subplot with Gandalf feels like a superfluous set up so we'll all be back next year. At least in An Unexpected Journey, there seemed to be a point to following Gandalf when he left Thorin's company, but this time it does feel tacked on.

 All things considered, and complaints aside, I really did enjoy The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. A friend of mine agreed, saying "It was good. It wasn't The Hobbit, but it was good." I thought it was better than good, but it's definitely not The Hobbit yet. Other reviewers have insisted that the film doesn't need to be any longer than it is, but I strongly suspect the inevitable extended edition is going to reinstate a LOT of material condensed in the front end of the movie, and as a fan of the book, I'm looking forward to that.

 Speaking of extended editions, I did see the longer cut of An Unexpected Journey, which I guess would count as a 2013 movie. Like much of the film, there were things I liked (the longer White Council meeting, the conversation with Elrond and Gandalf about Thorin), and things I really didn't (the Goblin Town song, the dwarves song in Rivendell, and the fountain scene). I don't know that much of it helped the story in any way, although the White Council scene is more specifically tied to Sauron now, which is in keeping with what Jackson seems to be doing with the six film arc. More impressive than the movie are the appendices, which not only go in depth with the creation of the film, but which give you a much better idea of the characters of the dwarves than the films allow. I would definitely recommend fans of The Hobbit movies check it out.

 Before we abandon the subject of elves for the rest of this recap, I guess it's worth mentioning that Thor: The Dark World is also a movie with those. But of the "Dark" variety, which is more interesting because... well, just because I guess. One of them is Christopher Eccleston (Malekith) and another one (his right hand Elf) is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays the "Shredder" and "Super Shredder" variety of bad guy. They're after some Aether, which is dark matter or something of that nature, that is what the universe was made of back before time and before Odin (Anthony Hopkins)'s dad beat them up and hid the Aether. It's how they roll in Asgard.

 I think it's cool that Marvel stopped giving a shit about appealing to everybody after The Avengers, and they figure since releasing any movie is like writing their own meal ticket, why not have a movie about Dark Elves that's not on Earth very much and has a climax about jumping from one dimension to the other in order for Christ Hemsworth to beat up Christopher Eccleston? After Captain America: The Return of Bucky (sorry, SPOILER) next year, their big release before The Avengers 2 is Guardians of the Galaxy, based on a comic none of you have ever read because of a talking raccoon and also a tree played by Vin Diesel. It takes some chutzpah to get that nerdy that fast, but kudos to Kevin Feige and Marvel for saying "to hell with it, bring on the Ant Man movie!"

 (by the way, while I'm dubious about the whole Guardians of the Galaxy thing, I will watch Edgar Wright's Ant Man starring Paul Rudd)

 So it's either a sign of hubris or not caring or Marvel really believes that they can bring the reaaaaaallly nerdy comic book stuff to the mainstream and not get laughed out of the box office. If Thor: The Dark World is any indication, I guess they're doing a pretty good job of it, because despite the fact that it has Dark Elves and the McGuffin is called Aether and it's about the realms aligning, etc., it's not an especially goofy movie. It's definitely not as goofy as the first Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Maybe it's that director Alan Taylor is best known for Game of Thrones, so there's a grittier aesthetic to The Dark World that's like Westeros, where all sorts of otherwise silly things seem perfectly reasonable (mostly that's because there's lots of sex in between the dragons and warlocks and zombies). There isn't really much sex in Thor: The Dark World, unless you count the Aether "entering" Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

 That's pretty much the impetus for the movie - it's what wakes up Malekith and the other guy and the reason Thor returns to Earth and the only reason Natalie Portman is in the movie in the first place. They have to save Earth and blah blah blah Dark Elves. I'm starting to think they just really wanted to tie in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into a Thor movie (well, vice versa, but you get the idea), because they didn't really need to go to Earth at all. Most of the human characters (Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, the dude who plays Kat Dennings intern) are window dressing. They have a few perfunctory things to do and get most of the goofy scenes, but you could not have them at all and it would still be the same movie. Maybe we'd care less because Earth wasn't being destroyed, but we're already in for the Dark Elves at that point.

 The main draw of Thor: The Dark World, continues to be the interplay between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Thor and Loki. Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo are in there too, but the sibling rivalry between step (?) brothers was the foundation of the first film, carried through The Avengers, and is probably even better this time around. If Hiddleston is on screen, The Dark World immediately gets better, and I'd recommend it for him alone. On the downside, if you wanted more Idris Elba as Heimdall, I'm sorry to disappoint: he isn't in the movie much, but he does take down a Dark Elf ship by himself, which is pretty cool.

 If your tolerance for the words "Dark" and "Elves" or patience for subtitled dialogue is anything like mine for the word "Necromonger," then Thor: The Dark World might be too "lame" for your tastes. But if you liked Thor and The Avengers and maybe played Dungeons and Dragons or at least can think of it without snickering derisively, then you might like this movie. Or Man of Steel might be your thing. I don't know, because I didn't see Man of Steel, because Superman is lame. The Dark Elves won that battle.

 Well, I think this has eaten up enough internet real estate for one entry. In the next few entries (hey, I'm working on a lot of movies here) the Cap'n  will be covering horror, some documentaries, a few films of smaller scope, more science fiction (and sequels), a return to form for a few of my favorite directors, and a handful of movies that aren't based on any novel, but sometimes feel like they could be.

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