Tag Archives: Action

Lockout (***, 2012)

lockout

The finally got around to making Escape from Outer Space, except that Kurt Russell is nowhere to be found and they decided to call it Lockout. Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential) stars as the retro-styled wiseass action hero surnamed Snow, a tough guy with no easy respect for authority. It’s the future, and now Earth’s best maximum security prison is MS One, a high tech facility in orbit above the planet. The inmates are now loose and have taken the president’s daughter hostage. The government gives Snow an ultimatum: go up there and bring her back, or forfeit your freedom and your life. Of course, the tough guy takes the mission.

Lockout has every opportunity to be horrible, and it kind of is. Everything in the film is borrowed, from its absurd premise to its aggressively mundane cinematography (EVERYTHING is teal and orange). In spite of these drawbacks, however, it manages to be stupidly entertaining. The key is that none of the actors seem to know they’re in a bad movie. For a space prison rescue movie the performances are really strong and mostly believable. Pearce really seems to be enjoying himself in the lead, inflecting his voice with gravel and cracking wise, and Maggie Grace (the blonde from Lost’s early seasons) holds her own next to him.

The most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to capture, however imperfectly, the retro-action vibe it so clearly tries to borrow on. So many remakes and reboots and comebacks these days draw on their source material in name only, lacking whatever wit and verve energized the better action flicks of twenty years ago. I don’t want to overpraise Lockout, as though it’s a fantastic return to form that reinvigorates a tired genre, but it’s a lot better than anyone should expect it to be.

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Once Upon A Time In The West (****, 1968)

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Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterful work of storytelling. First and foremost, it runs on patience. The plot does not unfurl with the directness of most films, but through a series of extended scenes which at first seem disconnected. Dark-purposed men waiting for a train. A homestead family murdered in cold blood. Two testy cowboys pushing each others’ buttons in a combination bar and general store. The film takes these sequences as an opportunity for mood-setting and the accumulation of details that give everything a lived-in quality. The set dressing in the bar, for example, is wonderfully ramshackle and cluttered to overflowing; the longer the film lingers there the more it seems like lived-in space rather than a movie set.

The best part about these scenes is the urgency they carry in spite of their languidness. At nearly three hours, the film had plenty of chances to drop its hold on my Twitter-addled attention span. I originally intended to watch it in parts, gradually taking it all in over several viewings. But Once kept making me wonder, “Well, now what is she going to do?” or “How is this going to fit in?” and so on. It patiently lays out a set of narrative stakes that incite these questions. We know Charles Bronson is going to be important, but just why is he hanging out here? What’s up with the criminal Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and why doesn’t he seem all that bad? And what kind of woman is this gorgeous widow (Claudia Cardinale)?

The sharp acting gives the urgency much of its punch. Even the most laconic characters have a sharp intensity imbuing their words and actions with palatable gravitas. The young widow, vulnerable and protected as she is, has clear agency and a kind of fiery self-reliance. The film wisely chooses to keep this under the surface in the early parts of the film rather than knowingly nudging us that she is no pushover right up front.

I am loathe to say too much about the plot, as one great pleasure of the film is how carefully it is told. There is money at stake and there is a rich man looking to protect his interests. Questionably lawful men end up protecting the woman caught in the crosshairs of the decidedly unlawful Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gun looking to swing things in favor of the rich man. I am under-schooled in the Western genre, but as I understand it the “Spaghetti westerns”–made by Italians like Leone and Sergio Corbucci–marked not just a stylistic turn in the genre but also a philosophical one. Instead of America-minded romanticism of the frontier, the Europeans played up the nihilism and violence of a world at the edge of the rule of law. The film is not quite anti-romantic, yet none of its characters are heroes or virtuous exemplars–just hardscrabble people trying to get by on the frontier and do the right thing if they can manage. They’re distinguished from the villains less by their impeccable righteousness than by their lack of cruelty and exploitation, though the story does eventually extend a measure of nobility to each of the principal characters by the last act.

Genre-wise, I also have little to compare the cinematography to. I don’t know how it compares to, say, a John Ford staple–it’s sumptuous nonetheless. The vistas are wide and a vibrant clay red. The staging is clear and concise, action and acting alike never confusing in terms of spatial relations. Plenty of high and wide shots showcase the immense and detailed sets made for the film, most impressive of which is a train track site that is a work-in-progress and milled about by hundreds of extras. There are times I noticed that technically, with current effects, the director could show more and more of these things, but nothing replaces the tactile specificity of the real and Once has it on display everywhere.

I am always surprised when I stumble across an older movie that I love deep in my bones, as many of the ones I saw growing up were perfunctory and boring. That goes doubly so for Westerns. I started watching Once Upon a Time in the West on a whim and was drawn in by it for the next two and three quarter hours. It is epic and gripping yet full of small moments of and subtle performances. If only I could say that about more movies.

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Django Unchained (*** 1/2)

You've got red on you.

If you heard a movie pitch best summed up by saying, “It’s Shaft in a Peckinpah western set in the slavery years of the South”, you’d be forgiven for laughing it to scorn or deciding to be offended. “Who would want to make such a film?” would be one natural response. “Who could make such a film without horribly trivializing the suffering and injustice of that time?” might be another. The answer to both questions, in my judgment, is Quentin Tarantino.

The latter end of 2012 has already given us one nigh-impeccable slavery-era picture in Lincoln, an unquestionably great film perhaps weakened only by its near exclusive (and by most accounts necessary) focus on the agency of white males. It is a “prestige picture”–restrained, beautiful, moving and noble. Quentin Tarantino’s historical revenge follow-up to Inglorious Basterds is at times beautiful and, yes, moving in its own way (and emotionally wrenching in a way Lincoln was not). Restrained and noble, however–those are for the white boys. Django Unchained is excessively bloody, ridiculous, cocksure and self-consciously witty. And it celebrates from beginning to end a black male agency that leaves no white oppressor unavenged.

The story begins with Django (Jamie Foxx), chained, trudging for miles with other slaves towards an eventual sale at market. This is interrupted by the return to Tarantino World of Christoph Waltz in the role of a German (Dr. King Schultz) working in America as a bounty hunter. That Django can help him with a bounty inspires him to secure his freedom, setting the plot in motion. They ease into a mentor/protege relationship, with Schultz training Django in reading and sharpshooting and the two of them earning several large bounties over a long winter (via montage, of course). Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Brunhilde (a gorgeous Kerry Washington), who was sold off to different owners after a joint escape attempt. Why help this black stranger? “I’ve never freed anyone before. I suppose I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.”

Brunhilde now lives and works on the vast Candie plantation, or “Candie Land”, which is overseen by an unctuously cruel Leonardo DiCaprio and his old Uncle Tom house servant played with refreshing nuance and intelligence by Samuel L. Jackson. The majority of the film depicts the protagonists’ efforts to rescue her, which they must accomplish by legal means (purchasing and manumission) for Django and Brunhilde to have a hope of a peaceful future. Framed by a German fable related by the benevolent Schultz, the plot is a self-conscious fusion of mythology and history that seeks to provide a romantic and victorious hero for an oppressed people who had too few.

This is all problematized by Tarantino’s love for the violent vengeance flicks of the 1970’s and our heroes’ occupation as bounty hunters. For the white viewer, Schultz is the closest one has to audience surrogate and moral compass, and by admission his bounty hunting job, like slavery, trades in cash for human bodies. Tarantino is egging us on. His depiction of the worst of slavery (we must assume Django’s horrors only scratch the surface) is edited so as to both spare us and revolt us. It begs the question of whether good men (in the classic Western tradition the film has little use for women except as prizes) can get along in such a world. His most virtuous characters are yet enraged and energized by the violence around them, resulting in a climax of orgiastic arterial geysers intended as cathartic comeuppance for the worst the white man had to offer the black.

I have thought much about my response to this film. I am uncomfortable with eagerly getting in on the vengeance thrill ride, something I more readily participated in when Taratino’s targets were Nazis. I am uncomfortable with implicitly saying, “I feel all the righteous anger of this oppressed people as if I know what it means to be personally affected by their oppression.” In other words, as one never having been the victim of American racism I am hesitant to pretend like I “get it” the way a Black American might. Also, the systemic mass murder of Jews had an end put to it with the force of a World War, whereas despite the Civil War and all the events of Lincoln white-on-black racism is still very much alive in this country and the socioeconomic fallout of slavery continues to affect the black experience in this country in countless toxic ways. It’s a living issue for me in the way that murderous anti-Semitism is not, and that complicated the film for me.

I also found myself, during Django more than any other film by Tarantino, questioning the morality of the director’s viewpoint. Does he wholeheartedly endorse everything Django does? Does he have a healthy dose of humanism (a thin line he danced nimbly in Basterds) in the way he treats his racist villains? Or, as it is for me and no doubt many others, is race still too potent of an issue? Does Tarantino find himself, like his characters, ignoring what seems reasonable in favor of what satisfies his righteous anger?

I am reminded of something the frequent Tarantino-critic Spike Lee said about his incendiary Do the Right Thing, which ends with a violent act of vandalism against whites. Asked whether the vandal–the main character of the film played by himself–had in fact Done the Right Thing, Lee responded, “No person of color has ever asked me that question.” Does Django do the right thing? Tarantino doesn’t seem to care.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (***)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If you’re not familiar with the fantasy epics of J.R.R. Tolkien–sprawling tomes of adventure and apocalypse and even more sprawling tomes of ancient mythos–Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie might be just right for you. It’s been called by some a dreary slog that will only really appeal to hardcore fans, but Jackson’s latest three hour carnival plays out as if Tolkien’s work were being retold by a hyperactive ten year old with a love for swashbuckling fantasy epicness but only a partial memory of the book read to him as a younger child. It’s really fun. It’s an abomination as a work of adapted fiction.

Ostensibly about a fussy bourgeois midget unwittingly caught up in a dragon-slaying adventure, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes every opportunity it can to digress, to add on, to re-invent Tolkien’s wheel. Early on Gandalf remarks that “all the best stories deserve to be embellished”–Jackson clearly believes this. A lot of the extra material has the feeling of that hyperactive ten year old approaching a scene and saying, “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if…” As in Bilbo’s (the fussy bourgeois midget, or hobbit) encounter with three trolls, where a relatively quiet battle of wits from the book is stuffed with battling dwarves and a flashbang appearance from a wizard. The overall effect recalls the visual maximalism of Jackson’s King Kong. It’s a fitting style for the story of an oversized ape, an uncomfortable one for that of an undersized human.

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Martin Freeman, who plays the Hobbit, seems to be the only one who remembers that he’s in an undersized human movie. His performance is as naturalistic as one could hope for–probably the best performance in all of the Tolkien adaptations to date, and at least side-by-side with Viggo Mortensen and Andy Serkis. And he provides the heart of the movie, taking us back to the strong emotional throughline of the series where small and weak creatures do incredibly brave things for virtuous reasons. His explanation to the dwarves as to why he’s continuing on their quest towards the film’s end is particularly moving.

The thing about this movie is that despite its shortcomings in being The Hobbit, it excels at being a rollicking adventure movie in a way that most such releases can only half-heartedly strive for. If overstuffed, it allows itself moments of batshit insanity, such as the expansion of the birdshit-stained forest wizard Radagast the Brown, a mentally unstable Ace Ventura magician with the most absurd means of conveyance in film history (trumping even Neverending Story‘s racing snail). Also see the entire sequence involving the goblin kingdom and their testicle-chinned king (it’s that intentionally revolting).

I saw the film in 3D at 48fps, which is almost as bad as people have been saying. When the visual information becomes sufficiently overloaded the effect works though at the expense of anything recognizable as classical cinematography. On a smaller scale, however, things take on the televisual quality of most BBC productions. Combined with the film’s leisurely pacing, it makes Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey seem at times like the first part in the most lavish BBC miniseries ever produced. Also, the shuffling between large and small scale sequences gives the film a jarring visual effect, switching up unexpectedly between the best you’ve ever seen and the worst. It’s ultimately a distraction.

If you love high adventure, wild fantasy and frenzied set pieces then The Hobbit is for you. If you love Tolkien, expect less of him than even Jackson’s other movies provided and consider yourself warned.

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Who Should Direct Star Wars 7?

I’m cautiously optimistic about the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm. Apparently there’s plenty of nerd rage circulating the interwebs about it right now, with cries of, “NO! That’s not true! That’s impossible!!” and whatnot.

But, as with most Jedi devotees, the purity of my love for the series was forever ruined by The Phantom Menace and its follow ups. I’ll never forget the series of disappointments that film piled on, the slow realization as it went on that it wasn’t going to fundamentally redeem itself. Lucas et al did not seem to have considered what made the original trilogy work, but rather treated the material as an intellectual property that could be strip mined for flimsy stories sold on their special effects.

Lucas knew that people would go see the movie, and did not waste time with things like mystery or working to get us invested in the characters. Lucas, legal and creative despot of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties*, had free reign to make whatever the heck he wanted. The prequels have the feeling of half-baked ideas run amok, ultimately flashy, hollow products lacking any compelling aesthetic or narrative sensibilities. I’m overstating my case somewhat, but it fuels how I feel about the Disney takeover of the intellectual property (from here on, IP).

Because Lucasfilm has already reduced the Star Wars brand to an IP to be mined for corporate entertainment, it makes sense for it to be taken over by a company who often succeeds at doing that to great effect. Not that Disney hasn’t churned out its fair share of crappy movies, but, like many others this past week, I would point to the Disney takeover of the Marvel and Pixar brands of positive examples of what the Mouse House can do with pre-existing IPs or studios. This is the framework (effective corporate takeover of an entertainment IP) that should shape how think about which directors are best suited to the task of helming Star Wars 7.

First off, there are some big name directors who are just not viable options. Industry moguls like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are invested in their own projects and studios and would surely never deign to be squeezed into the Disney’s re-energizing of the Star Wars franchise. Two other fan favorites, Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, are less impossibly unlikely yet ill-fitting for various other reasons. God spare us gritty or post-modern turns in the Star Wars film canon.

There are other highly talented directors who haven’t been as widely proposed but might at first seem like good fits. Guillermo del Toro, master of the truly alien, is too infested in his brand of subversive fantasy-horror to come to a gee-whiz IP like Star Wars. Brad Bird, who gave us The Incredibles and Mission Impossible 4, is too witty and kinetic–I don’t see him thriving in broadly epic adventure mode. Insanely talented stylists like Alfonso Cuaron and Ridley Scott don’t fit, precisely because Star Wars has never really been about style.

The worst case scenario is that we get some awfully pedantic director hired for bringing effects heavy tent-pole films to the screen on time and under budget. Chris Columbus, of the first two Harry Potter‘s, would be one, Jon Turteltaub of the National Treasure films would be another. Stephen Sommers helmed the first two Mummy films and was entrusted with the second installment of G.I. Joe. Shawn Levy gave us the Night at the Museums, the three-letter nick-named McG both Charlie’s Angels as well as Terminator 4. And then there’s Brett Ratner–*shudder*. Anyone who fits this bill would count as a loss to me.

Here are some guys I think could make it work–and seem like realistic possibilities given that it’s Disney doing the hiring.

Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoJohn Carter)

Despite the colossal mess that was John Carter, a lot of its problems seem inherent to the unlimited freedom the studio gave to Stanton to make a convoluted fanboy indulgence rather than a streamlined and effective pop thrill ride. Stanton is a talented director, and Carter shows the promise of a large-scale, effects-driven adventure that could have been.

Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the CaribbeanRango)

Verbinski oversaw Disney’s most lucrative franchise of the past decade, and while the Pirates sequels weren’t as fun as the first, they remain agreeable effects-driven tentpole films. Additionally, Verbinski’s penchant for weirdness and art design could really serve the Star Wars universe well. He could bring back some of the strange textures that the Jim Henson workshop imbued Empire and Jedi with.

Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureThe Polar Express)

Zemeckis has finally broken his decade long absence from live action film with the highly acclaimed Flight, and could follow that up by taking over SW7 for Disney. He made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with them in the late 80’s, and has been obsessed with effects-driven films for virtually his entire career. He’s made some highly popular classics like Spielberg and Cameron, but he doesn’t seem to be tied up in future projects in the same way that they are.

Joe Johnston (The RocketeerJurassic Park 3Captain America)

Johnston is a serviceable director who tends to work with effects, and his pop-classicism would be a great fit for the Star Wars universe. Captain America was an especially great showing for him, and the Marvel-Disney connection might get him on the list.

Jon Favreau (ElfIron ManCowboys & Aliens)

The same goes for Favreau. He has a both a great eye for action and snappy dialogue timing. If the next Star Wars has any of the verve of the Iron Man films it will be better for it.

Pete Docter, Andrew Adamson, John Lasseter (various)

These guys, like Andrew Stanton, are all talented directors working in animation. Adamson has already made the transition to live action (from Shrek to The Chronicles of Narnia) but Docter (Up) and Lasseter (Toy StoryCars) could both reasonably break out of Pixar and make a fantastic Star Wars film. Although Lasseter certainly knows how to make an entertaining film, as current head of Disney Animation Studios he is the least likely of the three to take or be offered the job.

In My Dreams: Hayao Miyazaki

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