Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chris's Classics: "Back to the Future" trilogy

I had the pleasure to go see "Back to the Future" on the big screen yesterday in honor of the film's 25th anniversary. I'm pleased to say that the film is just as much fun all these years later as it was the first time we laid eyes on the DeLorean.

As the trilogy hits Blu Ray this week, I figured I'd post my thoughts on it from back when I was doing my Alphabet Project about a year ago. My thoughts are all still the same except that maybe I love the movie a little more now.


"Back to the Future"--It hit me about halfway through my viewing of Zemeckis' film how easily this movie could have been just another forgetable '80s teen comedy.

The plot was ripe for a raunchy, broad piece of trash. A teenager lives with loser parents and is friends with an eccentric scientist. He goes back in time and his mom falls in love with him. So he has to get her to fall in love with his father. Toss in a couple '80s jokes and music and you can see how the wrong director and cast could have made this a "Weird Science" or "My Science Project" type of raunchy, dated flick. And "Back to the Future" certainly has every right to feel dated--it's set in 1985, has a soundtrack driven by Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love," and contains jokes about Ronald Reagan, Darth Vader, Eddie Van Halen and copius use of the word "heavy."

But I guarantee that kids today still love "Back to the Future." There is something endurable about it that transcends time and generations. It's probably one of the few movies where the entire family will stop and watch it together simply because everyone loves it.

I think that's a testament to the work of director Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg, who make this movie feel much bigger and more epic than the plot would appear to allow.

Because, really, the plot is simple. Kid goes back in time, complicates his parents' meeting and endangers his own existence. Yes, there is the complication of getting him back to his own time via a lightning strike, but the heart of the film is really setting up the meeting of Marty McFly's parents.

But it's that plot that I think appeals to everyone. We've all wondered what it would be like to go back and see our parents as teenagers--where they cool? Dorky? What if we could see them fall in love? What effect does one moment have on the rest of a life? On a generation? Would we be friends with our parents or would we think they were dorks?

The great thing about Bob Gale's script is how it doesn't use the time travel as an excuse for cheap humor and gags but rather explores these concepts with heart and whimsy. Marty--in what is Michael J. Fox's most memorable role--is really an audience surrogate here...he's not really a deep, complex character. But because he's a typical teen who wants to take his girlfriend to the lake and dreams of rock stardom, we like him. And there's great humor in the complications with his mother's crush, his father's dorkiness and the bully Biff who would be a thorn in the family's side for 30 years. The film's biggest laughs and smiles come not from the time travel gags or 80s/50s juxtapositions, but from character-driven moments. George McFly calling Lorraine his "density," Lorraine swigging liquor and then pouncing on Marty (who she believes is named Calvin Klein), Biff's knack for screwing up insults.

The cast is just wonderful here. Fox is one of the most likable actors in the business--whenever I see him in a rare interview I think how much I miss his presence on the big and small screens. He's got a great comic timing and he comes across as an intelligent, funny kid--not a smart alec teen or an uber-nerd, as original choice Eric Stoltz may have come off. And he's got great chemistry with the entire cast--Lea Thompson is wonderful as Lorraine and Crispin Glover will always be known as awkward George. No one stands out or steals the spotlight but everyone is so genuine and likable that they provide a beating heart to this movie which, at its core, is driven not by science or plot but by a sweet love story.

I think Thomas F. Wilson gets unfairly overlooked when it comes to this series, by the way. Is there any doubt that Biff Tannen is the greatest bully in cinema history? He's dumb but he's also a bit scary--the scene when he goes after Lorraine at the end (prompting that fateful punch from George) is played seriously when, today, I think it would be played for more laughs to show a bumbling Biff. He proves to be the series' memorable villain and I think that people don't realize the range Wilson shows in the franchise--he's George's schlubby jerk of a boss at the beginning, a typical teenage bully in the majority of the film and a suck-up in the "new" 1985 created at the end. Then in part II he's Old Biff, sadistic grandson Griff, the big bad villain of Hill Valley AND his 1955 bully again. And in Part III Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen is definitely kin of the Tannens but with a wonderful Western flourish. It's a bit sad that we never have seen Wilson really live up to the potential he showed here (except for in his few memorable episodes of "Freaks and Geeks"--please Judd Apatow, use him again!).

And, of course, it would be a crime not to mention Christopher Lloyd as "Doc" Emmett Brown. Were this film to be remade today (PLEASE don't!!!!) I guarantee we'd see Doc as a one-note, bumbling and kooky mad scientist played by Eugene Levy or Ben Stiller. And yes, Doc is an eccentric character--he cons Libyan terrorists out of plutonium and creates a time machine out of DeLorean because it's stylish. But I also love the heart that Lloyd brings to the role here. This is a frustrated scientist with inventions that don't work...who finds out that he will be responsible for the creation of a successful time machine. There's a geeky awe that fills Brown's face as he studies the videotape of the future and I love the nerdy glee with which he makes a model of Hill Valley and apologizes that it's not painted or to scale. It's a largely comedic role, yes, but like everything else here, there's a strong heart to it.

Which I think only Zemeckis could pull off--he's never been a director who wants to make lowest-common denominator fluff. When he did a cartoon he made the insanely large undertaking of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." His Oscar winning "Forrest Gump" may be remembered for its quirky character, but it's also got a strong heart and ground-breaking special effects. Even his stumbles--I'm looking at you "Beowulf"--have been noble failures that managed to push the edge of technology and cinema. Zemeckis makes big movies. And while "Back to the Future" has a relatively simple story, it's a movie that feels big and magic.

As I said, much of that is due to its heart. But much of it is also due to the compact and airtight script by Bob Gale. In addition to being funny, it's also a wonderful example of screenwriting. There's not a wasted, useless scene or line of dialogue in the movie. Something interesting to try--pause the movie right before Marty escapes from the Libyans and is sent back to 1955; try to take stock of every piece of information you've been given in the movie up until this point--about the characters, time travel, Hill Valley, etc. EVERY single piece of dialouge ends up being vital and having a payoff in the movie. And its that tightness and focus that keeps audiences from drifting off--it's a fast-moving and energetic piece of work that never once lags. When you combine that with such great characters and wonderful pacing and editing work by Zemeckis--the climax of the film waiting for the lightning to strike is one of the best-timed set pieces in pop cinema--you have a formula that transcends simple entertainment and feels a bit like magic. And there's definitely a wonderful alchemy at work here that elevates "Back to the Future" above other films and explains why it's so beloved.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Alan Silvestri's memorable score. In one of the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the DVD collection, Silvestri recalls that Zemeckis told him to compose the score so that the movie felt bigger than the images would suggest. And I think the big orchestral score is part of the reason the movie has such a wonderful feel to it--it really gives it an epic, larger-than-life atmosphere. I've tried imagining an average film score in its place and I simply can't do it without the movie feeling a bit cheap. Silvestri's work here is just as memorable as John Williams' scores for "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

And, like most great films, "Back to the Future" stands apart from its sequels. While I think Parts 2 and 3 are entertaining and fun in their own right, the fact is that they don't capture the magic of the original. And, in much shorter write-ups, we'll see why. . .

"Back to the Future, Part II"--When I was a kid, this was THE movie to see in 1989 for one reason: Hoverboards.

Zemeckis has stated time and again that "Part II" was not an original part of the "Back to the Future" plan...the "To Be Continued..." stuck at the end of the VHS copies of the first film was a bit of a sly joke. But once a sequel was called for, it would definitely have been a cheat not to pick it up right from the end of the first film. When Doc comes back for Marty and Jennifer and tells them they have to "do something about their kids" and then that DeLorean flies away audiences WANTED to see what happens next.

But I actually think the 2015 portion of the film is the weakest part of the trilogy and really falls prey to sequel-itis. Yes, it was fun to see them re-visit some of the beats of the first film but in a new setting four years after the fact. But when you watch the films back-to-back, it just seems a bit lazy. Michael J. Fox playing multiple roles is played for broad, cheap humor that never really works--Fox is a great actor but his comedy has always been based in characters, not in gags and I think having other actors play his children would have kept some of the heart of the first film (but I think Zemeckis probably wanted to see how far he could push having the same actor play multiple roles on the same scene). I also think it's a mistake in the first 1/3 to make Jennifer a major character...we all know Elizabeth Shue went on to become an accomplished actress but here she's just a bit too annoying. And Doc is really left to the sidelines in the first half of the movie...actually he doesn't really figure much in the movie until the final 1/3 (but he gets vindicated in Part III).

That said, I don't think the 2015 portions are terrible, per se. The special effects are still fun and there are some clever in-jokes to the careers of Spielberg and Zemeckis. I love the menace Wilson has as Griff and elder Biff; Part II is really the movie where Wilson gets to shine. And I think Zemeckis really was just going through the motions of this first act simply to get to where he wanted to really take the sequel...

Which would start with Act II, in the alternate-1985. Watching it again I was surprised how dark of a turn the series takes in this portion of the film. Hill Valley is turned into a hell hole as Biff has taken control and there's a genuine feeling of danger and edge as we watch the town we loved in the first film transformed into such a dark place. By setting up an alternate present where Marty's dad is dead, his mom is married to Biff and the world as he knows it is thrown in disarray, the heart of the first film starts to be beat again and we realize that the characters we loved so much in the original are in danger--we want to see things change back. It helps that, despite how bizarre the situations get, Thompson and Wilson never play the characters as cartoons. Lorraine is now a sad woman who hangs on to Biff because of what he can provide. And Biff is now a menacing, sadistic thug without a hint of the buffoonary we saw before. I don't blame audiences who may have felt unsettled by this alternate reality and yearn for the innocence of the first film's 1955 setting...

And then Zemeckis makes a wonderfully genius idea by taking us right back there and dealing in great detail with the implications of time-travel--parodoxes, multiple selves, etc. I love the way the film acts as a "sidequel" to the original and there's a wonderful glee as Gale and Zemeckis weave Marty in and out of the events of the first films. It's fun and so complex that the movie threatens to topple over...but it never does. If the first third of the sequel is the trilogy's weakest point, I think the 1955 section of Part II is one of the most purely brilliant of the franchise and the cliffhanger ending is perfectly done...the shock of seeing Doc disappear, the mysterious letter and then the funny ending that draws back to the climax of the first.

So yeah, "Part II" is a fun and entertaining movie that is full of very clever, even brilliant,, moments. But I do think it lacks the sincerity and heart of the original film, relying too much on creating logical twists and turns. It's full of brains but a bit light on heart. Which is funny, because "Part III" actually has the opposite issue.

"Back to the Future, Part III"--I know it's popular to dig on this film and call it the weakest of the series. I know some people who think the franchise fell apart with this last movie. And it's certainly not perfect. But I think people have been may lack the cleverness and logical twists of the second film, but it's still an enjoyable, fun and surprisingly sweet way to close out the series.

Really, I don't know that there's much Zemeckis could have done with time travel after Part II. I guess it's only logical that after tackling the scientific complexities of it in the first sequel that he would set up the third to be an emotionally-centered and more stream-lined time travel adventure. And given the reality that they created--that they could travel through time but not space--and the series' insistance on focusing on Hill Valley's different families and generations, the best place they could go would be the Old West. Besides, it sets up a nice dilemma--without the scientific technology of the 1980s or even the 1950s, how in the world could Doc and Marty repair the DeLorean?

Besides, I think Zemeckis really wanted to make a Western. And the stunts and story-line may be pure fluff and typical Western archetypes, but they come off as fun and exciting. Some critics--such as Ebert--complained that the series went to a movie-style Old West instead of looking at the Real West. And yes, that may have been more scientifically accurate. But I'm a sucker for shoot-outs, horse stampedes, train robberies and other Western tropes, so I don't really care. And there's some good humor and excitement mined from it...and I like that Marty is finally challenged to mature and put aside his concerns about what others think of him. It's a nice way to mature the character a little.

But the heart of the movie and the reason it works so well is the burgeoning relationship between Doc and Clara. The romance is sweet and well-played and reminds us of the romantically-centered plot of the first movie. Lloyd really shines in this film and his heartbroken Doc, wrestling with love and logic in the final half, allows him to add a new dimension to the character. Mary Steenburgh is wonderful as Clara and their quiet interludes are the film's highlight--until the spectacularlly-done train robbery.

And in the end, the series ends on a fitting note. Marty, having learned not to worry about other people's impressions, avoids a tragic accident. The time machine is destroyed, just as Doc wanted. And yes, I don't understand why Doc would want the time machine destroyed and then would go ahead and build one out of a train--or how he would get the materials to do that. His reapparance at the trilogy's end is definitely more of an emotional capper than a logical one. But I understand why Zemeckis did it--no one would want to end the series without knowing that Doc and Marty see each other again and that Doc and Clara have happy lives. So I forgive that ending, even if it doesn't really make much sense.

Rumors, of course, persist about a fourth movie and I'm very happy that most everyone involved with the franchise has firmly said that a fourth movie is just simply not happening (if only the "Ghostbusters" cast were so willing. Sigh.). I don't think there's more for the franchise to say and, given the limitations they've set for themselves, there's not much more they could do in terms of time travel (Medieval England is out, and that would be the logical time-travel choice). I think a sequel would simply be an excuse for flash and special effects and would leave out the heart of the series...those who want a roller coaster road of fun had the opportunity for it on the fantastic "Back to the Future" ride that used to be at Universal Studios and fiction will never tire of exploring the philosophical and scientific complexities of time travel ("Lost" is doing it better than anyone right now).

What we have is a fun series that has moments of pure cinematic bliss. I'm happy to have it as it is without risking ruining it all.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chrisicisms: Hobbits, Hangovers, Time Travel and Robopocalypse

Happy Saturday everyone! While I sit down with my coffee and cereal, I thought I'd post my thoughts on a few of the movie-related news items that came up this week. So sit back, relax and here we go:

  • Obviously, the big news is that Peter Jackson's now-greenlighted adaptation of The Hobbit announced much of its cast this week, most notably Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Having never read "The Hobbit," I'm not sure how closely the cast resembles what fans had in mind, but Freeman does bore a striking resemblance to a young Ian Holm, who played Bilbo in Lord of the Rings. I've liked his work in the UK version of "The Office" and his brief turn in "Hot Fuzz," so I have no problem with giving him the keys to a movie this big. I called Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy last decade's biggest cinematic achievement, so I'm eager to see him take another trip to Middle Earth. Some have given Jackson flack for his post-LOTR career, but I found "King Kong" to be a highly entertaining, if overstuffed, ride and have yet to see "The Lovely Bones" for myself.
  • Other big news is that The Hangover 2, currently shooting in Thailand, has reportedly nixed the Mel Gibson cameo. It was reported last week that Gibson was going to appear as a tattoo artist, but this week director Todd Phillips stated that the cast and crew couldn't agree on the actor taking the role. I can see why--the jury's still pretty much out on Gibson's recent behavior. Those voice mails were pretty appalling and paint a dark picture of an actor whose persona was already pretty stark. Still, some have brought up the question as to why it was okay for "The Hangover" to feature convicted rapist Mike Tyson in a prominent role, but it's wrong for the sequel to feature Gibson, who has not been convicted with anything. That's a good point, although I agree with those over at who seem to think that it's the time element. People have had time to turn Tyson into a punchline while Gibson's offenses are still fresh. I do hope Mel can get it together and eventually be a respected actor-director again. But for now, he probably needs to lay low.
  • Still, I'd kill to see him on "Between Two Ferns" with Zach Galifianakis.
  • Back to the Future seems to be everywhere right now. "Entertainment Weekly" featured Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson in their recent reunion issue, Fox re-shot the film's famous teaser trailer for Spike TV's Scream awards and the trilogy will be released this Tuesday on Blu Ray. This is all in celebration of the film's 25th anniversary, of course, and AMC Theaters is offering screenings of the movie today at 12:30 p.m. and again on Monday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. I'm heading out in a bit to catch the film, and I'm hoping to write it up later this weekend as a look back at one of my generation's most beloved films.
  • It was announced just yesterday that Steven Spielberg will direct Robopocalypse, based on an upcoming science ficton novel. Spielberg has been fairly quiet since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it looks like we'll be seeing quiet a bit from him in the next few years. His motion-capture Tintin movie comes out next December the same day, actualy, as his WWI drama The War Horse, which appears to be his return to the serious fare such as Saving Private Ryan and Munich. I do love those films, but I have to admit that I miss old-school Spielberg, the man who brought us Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Popcorn Spielberg has been missing over the past few years--even his science fiction films AI, War of the Worlds and Minority Report are tinged with a darkness that wasn't in his earlier work. I have no idea what the tone is for Robopocalypse (which I assume deals with a robot uprising) but I hope it's in line with the Spielberg I loved in the 1980s.
  • Box office news from last weekend was, of course, Jackass 3D's unbelievable $50 million haul. There really aren't words for that.
  • This weekend brings Paranormal Activity 2. I had no plans to see this movie and was prepared for it to be a "Blair Witch 2" clone, but the early reviews I've read are promising. Now it just comes down to whether or not I'm brave enough to see it.
  • Work at my day job kept me busy this week so I had to miss screenings of Hereafter and Conviction. Stone also opened out here and I had to miss the screenings for that as well. Hopefully before I have to vote on the year's best I'll make up for that.

Okay kids, that's about it!


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Movie Review: "Never Let Me Go"

Science fiction is such a woefully under-realized genre. An opportunity to marry imagination and knowledge to an exploration of the human condition, it was once the realm of of authors who tackled big ideas and deep themes, exploring humanity, spirituality and morality through high concepts and difficult questions.

In today's world--possibly with "Star Wars" to blame--science fiction is basically thought of as lasers, robots and space travel. It is not seen as the realm of thinkers and poets, but as the domain of nerds. Occasionally, a "Dark City, "Matrix" or "Inception" will remind us of what the genre is capable of, but it's not long before it's back to aliens and spaceships.

Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go," then, is a film to cherish. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's beloved novel, the film looks like a standard English drama. It's more concerned with questions of relationships and mortality than with anything fantastical and there are no action sequences or special effects. Running through this art house drama, however, are deep and thought-provoking questions about science, ethics and humanity that will haunt viewers long after the credits have rolled.

Ruth, Kathy and Tommy are three children growing up at an English Boarding School. They're ordinary kids, dealing with bullying, adolescence and a strict headmistress who reminds them to obey the rules because they're very special.

It's not long before a teacher tells them the truth--while most children will grow up to be anything they want and live long lives as adults, the children of Hailsham will never have that opportunity. They have not been born, but created. They will grow up to be donors and after three or four operations, their bodies will begin to shut down and they will reach completion. Hailsham--along with other facilities across the country--is a basically a clone farm.

At this point, most films would kick the plot into high gear and feature a rebellion, a daring escape or an attempt to change the public's mind about the dangers of cloning. But "Never Let Me Go" is less interested in preaching and entertaining than in exploring what the consequences of a breakthrough like this would be on the young men and women who learn they are created to be nothing more than spare parts.

The film follows the three through three separate time periods--their childhood at Hailsham, teenage years at a cottage and the period nearing their completion. They do not seek escape or a change to the situation; they simply accept their fate and spend the film with the knowledge that they will never see old age. The best they can do is make the most of the time they have left.

Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the narrator, pines after Tommy (Andrew Garfield), who instead winds up with Ruth (Keira Knightley), but there are hints that he still may love her and be a better match. Ruth yearns to fit in with a modern couple they meet at the cottage. There's a heart-breaking trip to the city, where they hope to find Ruth's "original" and questions about who they were modeled after--decent people or the nation's forgotten. There's a fallout, a reunion, a chance at hope, the loss of friend and the underlying question of whether a human created in a lab is truly a human--do they have a soul, can they feel love, are they simply carbon copies of their originals?

Romanek, the music video director whose last film was 2002's "One Hour Photo," pulls back on the flashy visuals and instead creates a simple, yet beautiful and poignant film, content to let these characters grow, breathe and deal with the implications of their situation. He allows the questions to come to the audience organically instead of in speeches or ham-fisted exposition, except for an ill-advised moment at the very end where Kathy voices the film's main themes, which careful viewers have likely already begun mulling over.

The film is carried by a cast of three wonderful young actors. Knightley, dressed down and looking plainer than she has since "The Jacket," brings a viciousness and sadness to Ruth, who desperately wants to fit in and feel normal, despite her fears that she's been modeled after trash. Garfield, just weeks after delivering a riveting performance in "The Social Network," perfectly captures the frustration of a young boy who can't control his anger, was always seen as an outcast and aches for connection with the one person who understands him.

Mulligan delivered one of last year's best performances in "An Education" and proves here that the work was not a fluke. She's heartbreaking as Kathy, the outsider who watches everyone else living life while she aches, yearns and questions her existence. She's sympathetic and loving--which plays a major role in her adult role as a Carer--and yet she too wonders where she's come from and why her short life is so lonely and empty.

"Never Let Me Go" provokes questions and thoughts on the issues of cloning, to be sure. But its deeper concern is about the issues of life and mortality. What matters at the end? How do we live in the face of death--an inevitability whether it comes at a young age or old? Do we feel special or are we just fulfilling an obligation here on Earth? Are we here to be used by people or are we here to be useful to them? It's a very deep movie and the one of the strongest meditations on the themes of life and death since "Synecdoche, New York."

I saw this movie on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. I left the dark theater and felt that everything took on a new seriousness or weight. I wanted to call my fiancee just to hear her voice and I wanted to make sure every moment was being lived to the fullest. It's a rare thing when films can produce these thoughts, instead of leaving my brain as soon as the lights come up. I'm very thankful for Romanek for having delivered this movie and have a feeling I'll be revisiting it several times.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Movie Review: "Jackass 3D"

I hope you like poop...

Really, when someone plops down their hard earned movie money--plus the up charge for 3D--to see "Jackass 3D," they already know what they're in for. Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and their band of idiots are going to get in front of video cameras and pummel, smash, crunch, degrade and defame themselves all for your entertainment. Vehicles will crash off ramps, teeth will be pulled, bodily fluids will fly and each horrendous stunt will end with the participants giggling, laughing and shaking off their injuries. Knoxville and his gang have been doing this for 10 years, so the formula's not likely to change...although now, in 3D, it's all coming right at you.

How does one review a "Jackass" film? There's no plot. No character development. I guess it's a documentary, but the only point it seems to be making is "don't try this at home." I wouldn't even call the film's set pieces "jokes," as there is no real build up or structure--just the basest, most juvenile and idiotic humor known to mankind, finding humor in pain, puke and poop.

I imagine that Knoxville and Co. would be very pleased with that review.

The truth is, there's no defense of the "Jackass" series. It's the natural evolution of a culture of children who grew up watching "America's Funniest Home Videos" and probably "Home Alone"--although to be fair, you could also call "The Three Stooges" and "Tom and Jerry" in as culprits, too. For some reason, no matter how refined and mature we'd like to think ourselves, we--especially men--laugh when someone gets hits in the crotch or takes a face plant from a cliff (or, in this case, a big tree). Bodily functions still make us giggle. And while we'll hold our breath as danger approaches, we'll double over in guffaws once we learn no one is seriously injured.

It's crass. It's stupid. It's immature.

And yet, so help me, I laughed. Sometimes very hard and sometimes simply to hold back the sickness. Despite the 40 hours I spent at work looking like a professional this week, some 12-year old part of me, some deep id, was tweaked and I laughed even as I questioned why I was doing so. I don't know that I'll respect myself in the morning, but the truth is that Knoxville and his crew, as Jon Stewart put it this week, turn punching someone in the nuts into some sort of art form.

You'd almost think after a successful MTV show (with multiple spin-offs) and two movies, these guys would have run out of ways to place themselves in mortal peril or that, with a semi-successful movie career, Knoxville would grow out of his phase of getting rammed by bulls or dressing up in old man makeup on the street. And yet, everyone is back, gleefully jumping jet skis off ramps and into bushes, crawling through taser-strewn hallways and strapping themselves into a Port-A-John that is then bungeed into the air, with the predictable mess even more disgusting than you could have imagined (poor Steve-O truly suffers for his art).

I'll say no more about the stunts, except to say that everyone seems a little more gleeful this time around, excited to be back around. There's less of the crude and purposefully wince-inducing stunts this time (the paper cuts and electroshock from the first were less fun than gag-creating), although a gag with a scorpion's a bit hard to watch. The rest is all your garden-variety "Jackass," crashing things off ramps and into bushes, sucker punching your friends or playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with a live donkey that kicks back. In fact, animals get quite a bit of play, particularly a ram who seems to be enjoying fending off intruders way too much and some bulls that knock Knoxville for a serious loop.

This all is more enjoyable than it has any right to be, and I think much of that is owed to "Jackass" crew themselves. If they were fighting with each other the entire time, morose or fearful about any of this, it wouldn't be fun anymore. But the guys giggle and laugh their way through the 90 minutes, even after they've been trampled, pummeled or dropped in snake pits. Even when one of them is the butt of a joke, they laugh it off and walk away. There's an easy-going camaraderie these guys have together, a rapport that feels makes us feel like we're eavesdropping on a very bizarre frat party. It creates a positive energy for the film that extends very easily to the audience. There's never a mean-spirited joke or a gag played at an innocent bystander's expense. Plus, as Homer Simpson once said, it's funny because it's not happening to me.

It's still hard to believe "Jackass" has been around this long, but the guys are starting to show their age. They're a little slower to stand up after a stunt goes wrong and a little quicker to get sick. Steve-O, who spent much of the previous films in a state of intoxication, is now two year's sober--and that extra lucidity seems to not only energize him but also creates a self-awareness that makes his inevitable humiliation that much more humorous ("why do I have to be Steve-O," he asks at one point). A video montage over the end credits shows the cast and crew as children, teenagers and adults (so to speak) throughout the existence of this series and it's surprising to realize just how long this franchise has been around--the fact that they still look like they're having fun putting themselves through torture for our amusement is kind of poignant.

Kind of. Until you realize that the bond that brings them together involves hitting each other in the crotch, pulling out teeth via moving automobiles, seeing if they can make each other vomit and blowing up toilets and living in a state of constant adolescence.

It is my critical duty, however, to say that the use of 3D in the movie is spectacular, easily the best since "Avatar." Filmed in 3D, every drop of water, spit or...well, you get the idea, seems to drench the audience and director Jeff Tremain is wise enough to film in bright colors to make everything pop off the screen. The key to the "Jackass" films is to make you feel every hit, smack and crunch and the use of 3D in this film is the best I've seen in a long time. That actually is kind of sad to write.

Also, there's ultra high-speed photography at work here that produces some of the clearest and most-detailed slow motion footage I've ever seen. If you want to see just how much a person's fat ripples when they're shot with a paintball gun, how far their nose moves when they're punched in the face or what the impact really is when you're smacked with a wet fish, this is your movie. Zack Snyder must salivate over the slow motion work here. Again, kind of sad to write.

Listen, let's fess up here: if you're reading a review of "Jackass 3D," chances are you've already made up your mind about whether or not you're going to see it. You shouldn't be surprised to learn that people get hurt, groins get pummeled and poop is flung. For many people, this is not your cup of tea. In fact, even those of us who laughed likely have to admit that at the back of our mind we're asking the question "why am I laughing a this? What kind of person does that make me?"

And while it's fashionable (and easy) to rag on the "Jackass" films as being lowest-common denominator trash, I think there's also some room for understanding the series' appeal. After all, Knoxville and his crew aren't picking on anyone--everyone is participating willingly. The jokes are never mean-spirited--in fact, the gang's camaraderie is really the energy that carries this film. Yes, it's crass and crude--but in a sea of films that give us gratuitous sex jokes or pick on people, there's a certain innocence to this. Okay, not innocence. Juvenilia. Still...

I think that these movies exist for a culture of young men who have been raised in a culture where men have to be refined, quiet and nice. That sense of wildness and recklessness that used to define masculinity has largely been ignored in favor of dressing in a tie, being polite and politically correct and hitting computer keys instead of doing manual labor. Most young men spend hours playing video games these days instead of being outdoors, getting into trouble and getting themselves dirty and hurt. Knoxville and the "Jackass" crew are perpetual 10-year-olds, still rolling in the dirt, making ramps to jump their bikes over and laughing at their own farts (or, in this film, blowing party streamers with them). It taps into some part of masculinity that has been lost in this culture.

Or, perhaps, people just like poop.

I should note that this review is a milestone--the 100th post on this blog. That makes me feel something...I don't think it's pride.

Movie Review: "Red"

It's not too surprising to find Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Brian Cox co-starring in a film released in the awards season. These are respected actors who usually promote prestige projects this time of year.

It might be more surprising to discover that the film in question, "Red," features Malkovich toting a stuffed pig filled with guns, Cox hamming it up as a former Russian spy and Mirren, dressed in combat boots and a ball gown, firing a submachine gun with all the class and poise she displayed in "The Queen."

It goes without saying that Bruce Willis is the star.

Willis is Frank Moses, a retiree who spends his days working out and flirting over the phone with Sarah (Mary Louise-Parker), the clerk who sends out his pension checks. Moses has a bit of a crush on this girl, who encourages him to grow plants and tells him about the wonderfully trashy romance novels she reads at night. The two playfully chat over the phone and Moses suggests coming out to Kansas City to see her.

The film's opening 10 minutes have a playful sweetness to them, setting up what looks like a nice romantic comedy. It's perhaps a bit jarring when a team of assassins converges on Frank's house, quickly dispatched by the spry old man.

Frank, it turns out, is a former CIA assassin, classified as "Retired: Extremely Dangerous," or RED. Fearing that the men who tried to kill him will track his phone records and head for Sarah, Frank hightails it to Kansas City and forces her to come with him as he connects with his former CIA cohorts to figure out who wants him dead. This is not the first date she had in mind.

By the end of "Red's" two-hour runtime, I couldn't tell you exactly why the government was trying to kill Frank or who exactly was pulling all the strings. Based on a graphic novel by DC Comics, "Red's" plot is only an excuse to string together over-the-top action sequences, and scenes of Moses and his gang reminiscing about the good old days, when espionage was a "gentleman's game."

"Red" would likely be another disposable action-comedy were it not for the cast - surprising not for how out of place such esteemed actors appear, but for how comfortably they fit right into their roles. Malkovich, in particular, seems to be having the time of his life as an unhinged, paranoid former assassin who believes the government is trying to kill him to cover up for mind-control experiments they conducted - he has right to be paranoid, as the government did dose him with heavy amounts of LSD for years. Few actors play unstable as well as Malkovich, who sells every tic and outburst with hilarious flair, but also gets a few scenes to show just why he could be considered just as dangerous as Moses.

Mirren never phones in a role, and it's scary how comfortable she looks behind an automatic weapon with her steely eyes and hint of a smirk. Cox sells both menace and charm as Moses' former adversary who now is so weary of the game that he realizes he has more in common with his enemy than with most of his friends. Richard Dreyfuss is suitably slimy as a corporate villain and even Ernest Borgnine shows up, looking happy just to be along for the ride. The film's best scenes involve all of these characters chatting together, suggesting old histories, rivalries and romances that give the movie an unexpected sweetness. Only Morgan Freeman gets short shrift as Moses' best friend and fellow RED, showing up from time to time to crack a few jokes and help at a crucial moment.

The supporting cast is so good, in fact, that it's possible to forget that Willis is the film's star. It's tempting to say he's just playing the calm and collected hero role he's been doing for years. But there's a glint in his eye and a sense of humor that's been missing in his recent action work. When he's not invested in a role, his laconic nature can weigh down the film (see this year's "Cop Out"), but when he's having fun, it gives him a cool, dangerous edge (see his brief scene in this year's "Expendables"). In "Red," Willis brings more humor and style to the character than he did his last time out as John McClane, and he seems to relish the chance to have some romantic banter with Parker, who brings a comic jolt to a character that could easily be grating. It's funny to watch Sarah first be annoyed by the situation and then turned on by the adventure in which she finds herself. Wills also finds a suitable foil in Karl Urban ("Lord of the Rings"), the CIA agent tracking them down whose arc takes a few surprising and refreshing turns.

Director Robert Schwentke ("Flightplan") helms the action with one foot squarely in absurdity, particularly a sequence in a shipping yard where Malkovich literally hits a grenade like a baseball to save himself. The multiple car chases, shootouts and fist fights pack the adrenaline, but never become gratuitous or graphic because they're delivered with tongue fully planted in cheek, similar to this summer's "The A-Team" or "The Losers." "Red" is the better of those films, however, because of the joy these veterans are obviously having pulling off stunts that are usually left to the younger generation. "Red" is a slick B-movie usually reserved for summer, delivered with an A-list awards season cast. The combination is a great deal of fun.

"Red" likely won't be mentioned when these actors collect awards for, admittedly, higher-class projects in the future. I doubt it will be on a highlight reel at the Oscars. It's a solid and exciting action-comedy that hits the right notes in service of nothing more than entertainment. But if you've ever wanted to see the same woman who played the Queen of England take a shot at the vice president, here's your chance.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chrisicisms: Catching Up

Wow, I'm behind in my reviews. Pretty much everything I've written for the paper is posted on here but there's a lot I've caught up with on my own both in theaters and on DVD/On Demand that I haven't had a chance to write about. I'm hoping to be better about that as we go on, but for right now I really just need to get the reviews out of of the way so we can be up to date. So they're going to be quick, bulleted reviews. The only movie I've seen that I'm hoping to write up a full review on later is Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go," which deserves to be dealt with in its own separate entry. But this should bring us full circle and ready for the future.

Let's jump in:

  • For many people, Rob Reiner's cameo on this week's "30 Rock" was as funny as he's been in years. Part of that is because the director of "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally" has spent recent years directing swill like "North," "Rumor Has It" and "The Bucket List." But another part is because the majority of people didn't get the chance to see his charming coming-of-age comedy Flipped, which was dumped unceremoniously in theaters at the end of the summer. A he said/she said teenage romance about a young boy (Callan McAuliffe) and girl (Madeleine Carroll) who have a love/hate relationship in the early 1960s, "Flipped" is a gentle, kind-hearted love story that remembers more innocent times, when the biggest scandal was throwing out a neighbor's gift and the biggest tensions involved matters of the heart. It doesn't reinvent the genre, but by playing with perspective and telling the story from both protagonists' points of view, it feels fresher than it probably has any right to. Carroll is the refreshingly smart and energetic girl next door and steals the film and I also loved how the adults in the film--most notably John Mahoney as the boy's grandfather--showcase the role parents play in how their children develop their personalities and temperaments. It's a sweet, clean and funny movie, worth a look for those wanting something to put a smile on their face.
  • It took more than twenty years, but Gordon Gekko is back in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Oliver Stone revisits the world of corporate trading and professional greed with this timely drama, following a young broker (Shia LaBeouf) as he navigates the corporate world in the time just before the recent financial collapse. LaBeouf has his first truly grown-up role in the film, looking to exact financial vengeance on the trader (Josh Brolin) who ruined his mentor (an excellent as always Frank Langella). Michael Douglas is as winningly slimy as ever as Gekko, fresh out of prison and hoping to reconnect with his daughter (Carey Mulligan), who is engaged to LaBeouf's character. The masterstroke with Douglas here is that Stone keeps us in the dark for most of the movie as to whether Gekko has truly reformed or if he has ulterior motives. The director's anger over the recent financial disaster is palpable and, as always, Stone doesn't hide his rage. He throws a number of flashy effects at the screen and presents the film with all the subtlety of the sledgehammer...he all but has Brolin twirl a mustache to show how evil he is. Still, the film largely works because we're just as angry as Stone is and it's a bit invigorating to see Wall Street's greedy honchos get lambasted for our entertainment. It's not the great, slick drama that the 1988 original was, but it's great fun to revisit Gekko again. Stone missteps at the ending though, with his anger seemingly replaced by a defanged climax that throws up its hands and goes soft instead of jabbing us in the gut like Stone has promised all movie long.
  • You can count me as one of the people who was angered at the mere mention of an American remake of the brilliant Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. I was convinced that an American director would take everything beautiful, edgy and disturbing about this friendship between two children--one of whom's a vampire--and turn it into another "Twilight"-type disaster. But Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") has proven me wrong with Let Me In, possibly the best horror movie to hit theaters since "The Descent." "The Road's" Kodi Smit-Mcphee and "Kick Ass'" Chloe Moretz deliver solid, devastating performances as a bullied boy and a vampire girl who befriend each other on a snowy Los Alamos playground. Reeves makes the story his own, giving increased richness to the boy's isolation and a sadness to the relationship between Moretz and her caretaker (a fantastic Richard Jenkins). The film keeps the themes of loneliness, identity and a world without adult supervision that made the Swedish film so haunting and adds in a gripping subplot about a detective (Elias Koteas) investigating a grim series of murders that connects back to the children. Haunting, beautiful and poetic, "Let Me In" is a worthy take on the material and just as gripping. Unfortunately, it also joins "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" as the best movie that audiences chose to ignore this year.
  • As Halloween approaches, so does my love for great horror movies. I recently had the chance to rent Adam Green's Frozen On Demand and can highly recommend it for those planning to never go skiing again. In the same vein as "Open Water" and "The Blair Witch Project," it's one of those great never-go-into-nature-because-it-will-kill-you movies. Three friends go away on a skiing trip and manage to finagle themselves onto one last run before the weekend's over. Thanks to a series of carefully explained events, the three find themselves left on the ski lift when the resort closes for the weekend. It's Sunday night. It's cold and there's an ice storm coming. There are wolves below. And no one's coming until Friday. Despite some implausibilities (I doubt that many wolves would congregate near a ski resort), the film is sickeningly suspenseful and terrifying. The three leads are believable and Green milks just as much suspense from their internal conflicts as he does the life-threatening situation they find themselves in. It's one of those movies that ask the audience to think what they would do in a similar situation...and then takes each one of those solutions and shows just how horribly it could go. Grim, taut and gripping, it's worth a look for those who love their horror without a supernatural bent.
  • I was one of the millions caught up in Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I read over the summer. I'm excited to see what David Fincher does with his version of the story, but in the mean time Niel Opley's Swedish take on the material will suffice. The film follows the first novel fairly closely, as Mikael Blomkvist (Neil Nyqvist) investigates the 40 year old disappearance of a teenager girl on an isolated island. Opley makes the investigation--which involves much use of computer databases and photos--surprisingly watchable and cuts enough fat--such as the backstage intrigue with Blomkvist's magazine--out of the film to streamline the story, although I feel that he shortshrifts all the rich history of the Vanger family that made the mystery so resonant in the novel. Still, it works for a 2.5 hour thriller, and Noomi Rapace is utterly perfect as the troubled but brilliant hacker Lisbeth Salander. Newcomers will appreciate the suspenseful and beautifully-photographed thrillers but I think fans of Larsson's trilogy may find it a tad too abridged to fully embrace.
  • This weekend while I had some time to myself I also finally caught up with David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, a quiet little romance he made a few years back. The story of a womanizer (Paul Schneider) who falls for his best friend's virginal sister (Zooey Deschanel), the movie is a quiet, deliberately-paced drama about growing up, maturing and navigating this whole labyrinth of love and relationships. I still have trouble reconciling that the same director who made this and the meditative "George Washington" and "Snow Angels" is the man who went on to helm "Pineapple Express" and some of the raunchier episodes of "Eastbound and Down." But Green's direction here is just as delicate as in his best films, capturing the slow rhythms of life in a small town and the gentleness with which we live alongside each other. The story is minor but beautiful and Schneider and Deschanel ably capture the insecurity, fear, thrill and danger of falling in love. Definitely a beautiful little movie.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Movie Review: "Waiting for Superman"

Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman" is a documentary, not a comic book film. But for many parents, I have a feeling it may play like a horror movie.

The film details the utter failure of the American public school system, in which inner city schools are called "drop out factories," bad teachers are impossible to fire, and the country's students place 26th in reading and science.The bright side? Their confidence is high: Nearly every student polled thinks Americans place No. 1 in those areas.

Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") knows audiences are well aware of the problems that have faced the education system for decades. We've heard stories of classrooms that have run out of supplies, teachers who sit back and do nothing, and idealistic educators constantly thwarted by district bureaucracy and governmental politics. He plainly states that in the inner cities, many middle schools fail to properly prepare kids for high school. In many urban high schools, freshmen start five years behind and half are guaranteed to drop out, ending up on the streets or in prison. Conventional wisdom, Guggenheim states, has always believed that bad cities were to blame for bad schools. However, he reports that just the opposite may be true.

I'd imagine that an entire Ken Burns documentary could be prepared detailing the myriad things that derailed the public education system. But Guggenheim places the lion's share of the blame at the feet of teacher unions that wield enormous political power and make it nearly impossible to fire teachers once they receive tenure, which can often happen in as few as two years. In some states, such as Illinois, the film posits that it is actually easier for a doctor to lose his license or a lawyer to be disbarred than to fire a tenured teacher. In many districts, bad teachers are simply transferred from school to school in a game known as "pass the lemon." In New York, disciplined teachers sit in an office building reading newspapers while awaiting hearings; they receive full salary and they can wait as long as eight years before their cases are called.

It's sobering, even for this critic without children in school. Bright students who are eager to learn can have that potential snuffed out by teachers who don't care or districts that don't allow them to flourish. While many suburban parents can send their children to private schools, many lower-income parents don't have that luxury and are at the mercy of their districts, watching as their children are sent off to buildings where the odds are stacked against them.

The film would likely still be shocking if it were just a parade of these grim statistics and district snapshots. But Guggenheim engages the audience by following five inner city students from around the country as their parents worry about the future awaiting them in the classrooms. Statistics are sobering, but it's even harder to take when they're placed with names and faces. His subjects - Francisco, Anthony, Bianca, Daisy and Emily - are bright, precocious children who want to become veterinarians, surgeons and teachers. They're young and excited about learning, even if they have their own struggles in the classroom. Seeing their optimism and also their awareness that a tough road awaits them is sobering, and creates an emotional bond to the problem.

There seems to be hope, Guggenheim states. There are idealistic, innovative teachers across the country interested in education reform. We meet Michelle Lhee, the Washington, D.C., superintendent who came in and fired underperforming principals and teachers, and came up with a proposal to do away with tenure and offer teachers merit increases - a proposal that could have doubled teachers' salaries if they performed well ... and was shot down when the union deemed it too threatening.

We also meet educators like Geoffrey Canada, who opened a charter school in inner city Harlem where teachers are involved in the education process literally from a students' infanthood. Naysayers told Canada that opening a school in Harlem was a lost cause; years after opening, however, his students are scoring higher on tests than students from even the best areas. The implication is clear: When good teachers are allowed to teach and engage students, students can succeed. When education is more focused on protecting employment or watching the bottom line, students fail.

Charter schools - public schools that operate outside of the district policies - seem to be an attractive option, one that offers students a greater chance at success. But the limited availability and high number of applicants mean students are accepted through lotteries. In the film's tense and heartbreaking final 20 minutes, we watch as each student Guggenheim's followed sits in on lotteries and basically has their educational future determined by chance. It's one of the most sobering and devastating moments I've seen on screen this year.

At the screening I attended, there were several angry and frustrated outbursts with every setback or new statistic. Guggenheim, as he did with global warming in "An Inconvenient Truth," is able to take complex statistical information, and make it immediate and relatable. Is it a bit manipulative to parade children in front of to hammer home a point? Perhaps. But Guggenheim's work never feels overly manipulative and the point of the matter is this - this is about children's futures. When you see how schools are failing and the impact it has on children's lives, outrage is the only emotion to feel.

But as with "An Inconvenient Truth," Guggenheim closes with an appeal for involvement, asking audiences to text if they want to help. I can't imagine anyone who hears about the nightmarish state of America's schools will want to stay passive as they walk out of the theater. Parents, educators and anyone concerned about the future of the nation will want to pay attention to this movie, and it's the rare film that could spur people to action and make a difference.

Or, as the title suggests, we could sit back and wait for someone to come in and fix it for us. But, as Canada reminds audiences early in the film, Superman does not exist, and he's not going to come and save the day.

Originally published in the Oct. 10 edition of The Source.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chrisicisms: Waiting for Zack Snyder's "Superman"

So, in the interest of keeping this blog more active, I want to start adding in some new features. A few looks at older movies, maybe some capsule length reviews of movies I've watched and not reviewed for the paper. But a big component I want to introduce is "Chrisicisms," in which I talk about some recent news, trends or other opinions in film. Sometimes it will be a bullet list of some items that I've stumbled across during the week. Other times, such as this week, it's just my viewpoint on something I've been mulling over. Hope it's enjoyable!

The big news this week is that Zack Snyder has been chosen to helm the Christopher Nolan-produced reboot of "Superman" for Warner Bros. for a 2012 release.

I've seen quite a bit of reaction on both sides about this news. There are some who feel Snyder is a perfect fit for such an iconic character, as the "300" director has fueled his career by putting together some particularly dazzling images. Others feel that Snyder's reliance on slow motion and green screen (which, to be fair, was only with "300") make him the wrong person to tackle the Man of Steel.

It's kind of a silly game to play. After all, whether we like it or not, WB has made their decision. Unless there's some kind of behind-the-scenes fiasco, Snyder is going to make the next Superman movie. It might be best just to take a breath, let him choose his Clark Kent and make the final judgement once we've seen the final work.

But it's Superman. And fans of Superman movies are likely going to have opinions on this matter.

I wasn't much of a comic book reader as a child--a few Batmans and Ninja Turtles as they grew in popularity, but not much more. But when I was in Middle School, DC Comics presented the "Death of Superman" storyline and, like many of my friends, I was hooked. I read every issue of that arc, riveted to the page and shocked that in the end I actually saw Superman bloodied, beaten and dying in the arms of Lois Lane (I was still young enough to not know what "publicity stunt" meant and be surprised when Supes was resurrected just about a year later).

My grandfather bought us a VHS of the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons when I was young. I loved every one of those and can still hear the theme song in my head. I loved the Christopher Reeve films (although even as a kid I knew Nuclear Man in Part IV was pretty lame). Superman was always the ideal hero to me--a bona fide good guy, fighting for good causes and without the dark, questionable morality of Batman. I still think Richard Donner's "Superman" is one of the greatest comic book movies ever made and I have a soft spot for "Superman II" as well. While I understand why some people didn't care much for Singer's "Superman Returns," I think it's a worthy follow up to Donner's film and Brandon Routh is fantastic as the Man of Steel.

Superman's a tricky property to get right, though. There's a balance of optimism, hope and Americana that is a large part of who the character is. Superman has been derisively called a Boy Scout, but I have never understood why that's a criticism--there's something pure and admirable about Superman, a character who always does the right thing and stands up for justice. When you can get it right on film, as Donner does in the first 2/3 of the first "Superman," you can make something joyful, inspiring and memorable. But if you go too far in the wrong direction, the character can be cheesy, cliche and campy.

Of course, we don't live in the same innocent world that embraced Superman before. We prefer our characters to be dark and edgy, haunted by inner demons. It's why Batman endures--he does the right thing, but goes to dark places to do it. And perhaps the failure of Snyder's "Superman Returns" was that it was a little too innocent and earnest for current audiences, especially those who had been thrilled by "Batman Begins" only a year prior--a hero reminding the public to fly safely and wearing bright red and blue tights may not have been what they were in the mood for.

But I still think that a warmth and optimism is crucial for getting the character of Superman right. Batman's darkness and edge work because they are a part of the character--the Dark Knight appeals to our darker sides. Superman is the Man of Steel...he's a symbol of hope, fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

Nothing Nolan or Snyder has done have convinced me that they can bring that tone to this story.

Nolan, of course, gets the benefit of the doubt simply because he's a genius. When your filmography includes "Memento," "Insomnia," "Batman Begins," "The Prestige," "The Dark Knight" and "Inception," you've earned a bit of trust. I've enjoyed all of Nolan's films and felt the majority of them are masterpieces. He's an original, a master of both images and narratives. I have no doubt that he has an idea of how to approach Clark Kent/Superman or that he has a fantastically plotted story in mind.

But remember what I said about optimism and hope. Up until now, all of Nolan's films have been dark, possessing a distrust of even their protagonists. The reason Nolan's movies are so resonant is because he deals with broken characters, men who are trying to do the right thing and yet find themselves complicating situations throughout the way. He has a recurring theme of men haunted by their past, trying and failing to do the right thing and often with a habit of sabotaging themselves; it's this interest that has elevated Nolan's Batman films beyond mere superhero movie status to actual art. I'm not saying that he doesn't have an optimistic bone in his body and I trust that he's smart enough to know what sort of theme "Superman" should have...but given the themes he's traditionally tackled and the tone in all of his films, it's just hard to fathom what a Christopher Nolan-produced "Superman" would be.

Snyder's more problematic for me, and not because I'm a hater. As I stated in my "Legend of the Guardians" review last week, I think Snyder knows how to produce gorgeous images. He knows how to deliver a hero shot and he's a master at delivering action sequences--yes, he might overdo it with the slow motion, but you have to admit it always looks good in his hands.

And Snyder's made good movies. A "Dawn of the Dead" remake should have been verboten; Snyder's is surprisingly effective and entertaining. While "300" has not held up well in my experience, I must confess that it was quite the visceral experience when I first viewed it in theaters. He deserves major points for just being bold enough to tackle "Watchmen" and even more for actually making it good, even brilliant in parts (although he also cast Malin Ackerman and oversaw the horrible makeup jobs that marred the film). "Legend of the Guardians" is an interesting children's film and I think his upcoming "Sucker Punch" looks visually amazing.

But all of those films are surface entertainments for the most part--pretty-looking movies that don't have a ton that stick with you. With Superman, he's setting up a franchise and has to be able to take a character that, in the wrong hands, can come off as silly and cheesy, and make him heroic, admirable and intriguing. Nothing Snyder has done has made me confident in his ability to put likable characters on the screen or engage me beyond a visceral level.

And again, look at that filmography. A zombie movie. A bloody gladiator epic. A satire featuring superheroes with neuroses who kill villains with meat cleavers or have awkward sex on the couch. A children's movie in which owls attack each other with metal claws. Snyder's films typically have a darkness and edge to them. He pushes the limits. He's best when he's going beyond what we'd expect in a traditional movie. He has a dark aesthetic and seems to prefer characters that don't apologize for their blood lust. With a little reining in, he might be good for Batman. But I don't see the right tone for Superman in any of his work.

Of course, with the success of "The Dark Knight," WB might be edging towards a darker Superman movie. The other two directors up for the gig were Ben Affleck and Darren Aronofsky--neither of whom is known for their lighthearted fare (although I can't help but dream about what an Aronofsky Superman would look like). After all, before Singer took on the material, the franchise was set for a reboot helmed by Tim Burton with Nicolas Cage as a Superman who dressed in black and didn't fly.

A dark, edgy Superman may be what WB wants. If so, I think it's a mistake and misses out on some of the most essential characteristics of this iconic character. I don't want a dark and edgy Superman...I want a noble, pure and courageous Superman, one who inspires children to deeds of great heroism.

And maybe I'll be wrong. There's nothing more I'd like than to sit back in 2012 and realize that Snyder has made a fantastic Superman movie. I will happily admit it if I'm wrong.

But still...if you've seen what he's done with owls, what do you think he'll do with Supes?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Movie Review: "The Social Network"

Originally published in October 3 edition of the Source.

Ironically, the first thing I did upon walking out of the theater after screening "The Social Network" was check my Facebook.

It's almost a reflex. Since becoming one of the social networking site's 500 million users a few years back, it's become a part of my normal life. Whether through a computer or on my phone, I'm constantly viewing what my friends are up to or updating my status. There is hardly a person I communicate with regularly who is not on Facebook. Even my grandfather has a profile.

It's a rare thing to live through a communication revolution like this. Through social networking sites, we have the ability to reconnect with old schoolmates, keep up with our coworkers and learn every little thing about people we barely know in real life.

And if we're to believe "The Social Network," all it cost Facebook's creator to design this online intimacy was every close relationship he had.David Fincher's "The Social Network" is not really about Facebook, even though its creation drives the plot. Digging deeper, Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin examine a culture in which billions can be made by college students with only an idea and the life of a genius for whom technological revolution was a conduit for revenge.

The film opens with Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, "Zombieland") on a date with Erica (Rooney Mara). In just five short minutes, a cordial date unravels as Mark parades his condescension, impatience and unchecked ambition, ending with Erica delivering a wickedly perfect break up that sets the stage for everything that follows. It's a breathtaking dialogue sequence that spells out everything we need to know about this character and Sorkin's script dares the audience to keep up.

Angry and rejected, Mark returns to his dorm for some drunken blogging. With the help of his roommates, he gets the idea to hack into Harvard's various online photo archives to create a website where users can rate student attractiveness. The site attracts so many hits in such a short time that it crashes Harvard's network. When he's called in front of Harvard administration, Mark simply requests recognition for revealing the network's vulnerabilities.

The incident makes Mark a pariah among the school's females but a hit among the computer elite. Twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) enlist Mark's help in setting up a Harvard-only online dating site. At the same time, Mark and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Patrick Garfield) are busy setting up a Harvard social networking site called TheFacebook in which users can connect to their friends' profiles and trade information. It's a business venture that ultimately attracts the attention of Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).

The fact that the narrative is filtered through litigation between Zuckerberg and his former friends should tell you that Facebook's start was not without a few bumps. The Winklevosses, not without reason, suspect that Mark has appropriated their idea and we quickly learn that things will not end well for Mark and Eduardo's friendship either.

I first read about Facebook's tumultuous behind-the-scenes drama in a magazine article a few years back. While I found the subject fascinating, I never pictured it as a film. It was a story about computer programming, shady business contracts and legal action - not the most cinematically gripping stuff.

But Sorkin, famous for turning Beltway politics into weekly drama on "The West Wing," finds a human element in presenting Zuckerberg as a socially clueless, wounded and ambitious young man who doesn't seem to get the girls or the attention of the popular clubs. His solution: be better, be cooler and attract more attention ... and then use that attention to shut down everyone who he feels has slighted him. Portrayed with fierce brilliance and aloofness by Eisenberg, however, Zuckerberg doesn't come across as being a true jerk - just an overly prideful young man who doesn't fit in and then lashes out when his feelings get hurt. He's like an unfunny version of "The Big Bang Theory's" Sheldon Cooper.

It's a tough role and Eisenberg, best known for his comedic work, tackles it ably. We don't learn much about Zuckerberg except that he's brilliant and driven - and, perhaps, that's all there is to him. When he gets the idea for Facebook, it consumes him. He moves out to California and dedicates himself to the site. But no matter how popular the site becomes, he's always wrestling with insecurity over the friend picked for the club that neglected him, the slight from other students or the girl who just wasn't impressed with how smart he was. He doesn't know how to navigate social situations and gets irritated when others aren't on the same page as him. Eisenberg perfectly captures the condescending character of a man who sees himself as intellectually superior to everyone in the room, yet he also finds a few quiet moments to showcase Mark as a kid out of his element, afraid at how fast his dream is coming true and not sure how to emotionally react.

Sorkin is the rare writer to make legal and computer jargon crackle off the screen. Like on "The West Wing," his dialogue flies out of characters' mouths, daring the audience to keep up. The writing is whip-smart, gripping and surprisingly funny. Fincher's technique of cutting back and forth in the narrative between depositions and the actual event, coupled with Trent Reznor's propulsive score, give it a momentum that rivets attention to the screen and makes two hours pass in an instant. It's refreshing to see a film that respects audience intelligence enough to expect them to keep up and pay attention.Fincher's ensemble is superb, particularly Garfield. As the film's victim, a level-headed economics student who'd rather see Facebook slowly gain a profit rather than peak early, he presents Saverin well as a business-savvy young kid who wants to proceed cautiously and is ultimately betrayed for his wisdom. Timberlake is perfectly cast as Parker, the rock star of the Internet world, a cocky and brash rebel who talks a big game despite being fueled by paranoia and not having a buck to his name.

Fincher, a visual maestro in "Fight Club" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," has to rein in his tricks here. But still, no one shoots darkness on digital better than him and his creation of life on Harvard has a wonderfully edgy, dark tinge to it, taking place in a world where cultural revolution occurs amidst 3 a.m. frat parties and drunken bouts of brilliance. The director, who made three decades of investigative work intriguing in "Zodiac," ensures that despite the legal mumbo jumbo and massive tech talk the audience never loses site of the character drama at play or becomes lost in a maze of dialogue.

The film is peppered with insights that may require a second viewing. It's amusing and a bit sobering to think that the online social network community started by appealing to our attraction to exclusivity and desire meet the opposite sex. There's so much to say about the dangers of online business and intellectual property; the film should be required viewing for anyone thinking of starting a website. But none of this would work without a human story propelling it.

And in "The Social Network," that story is how a young man changed the way we communicate and connect with the people we love, even though it meant his own friends list had no one else on it.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.