In the interest of full disclosure, I march in the very front of the sequel-denouncing parade. Entertaining, original cinema is getting harder to come by because of audience-proven properties being squeezed for more money (come to mind Despicable Me 2, Grown Ups 2, Iron Man 3, all from this summer). I also think simply adding the number of its sequence to a title is the laziest thing a filmmaker can do to distinguish original from sequel. I suppose we have endless Rockysand Rambos to thank for that being acceptable.
However, I understand why sequels are so popular. If a movie (like a woman) takes your fancy, maybe you want to see more than what you got the first time. That is what I wanted with RED 2. The first one (out in 2010) was a fun, enjoyable little flic: great cast, great jokes, a great movie to unwind to. I thought another dose of that might do me good in these dog days of summer. Thankfully, it did what I wanted it to.
RED stands for Retired Extremely Dangerous, and the movie is about these retired CIA operatives who find themselves on the wrong side of the assassin's gun. As an action movie it would be pretty stupid, but as the comedy it is it works really well. It doesn't pretend to be anything important or special, it just provides welcome relief from things that do. That isn't to say that it isn't legitimately funny, either, or that it is just a paycheck movie for tired actors. There is no smack of adolescent crudeness or extremeness for the sake of extremeness like you might find in the Iron Mans of the world. But what right have I to say that, he's only the most lucrative movie franchise around. I guess everybody has their pet sequel, and I guess this one is mine.
RED 2 features Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and is rated PG-13 for old people swearing and shooting bad guys.
With The Kings of Summer, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has crafted an original and moving development in the coming-of-age genre. The movie is entertaining from beginning to end, hilarious and poignant, and I think even gives an important commentary on the struggle of self-discovery.
The movie is about three teenage boys who show their independence by building a house in the woods and living there through the summer. It has lots of the hallmarks of a coming-of-age flic, but are freshly interpreted and portrayed. It is not quite the update of Stand By Me you might think it is.
First, it is consistently hilarious throughout, and this is helped especially by the supporting cast. Moises Arias is possibly the greatest gem as their Italian friend, Biaggio. But the adult characters who the boys rebel against are fun to watch, too. They are not simply oppressive Disney Channel caricatures. Nick Offerman plays a single father trying to keep his family together, and he maintains a dry hilarity over his deep-seeded personal sadness. Everybody is complex and vulnerable, and their misunderstanding of each other is mutual.
A cast full of great characters is hard to find, but rarer still is a film with its own distinct voice, and this is that movie. The writing is confident and the visual element is pristine. It is a teenage comedy written with the control of the Coens and shot something like a toned-down Wes Anderson might have. It would still be brilliant if only listened to, and if watched muted it would still carry a heavy emotional weight. This is applaudable.
Beyond the fine characters and distinct-while-understated style, I loved this movie because it felt true. While I certainly never would have, I could easily have had a group of friends who ran off to prove their manhood in the wilderness. Every boy has. And, I think, every boy does something like that. Our society doesn't require rites of passage into manhood anymore, but a boy feels that there should be when he begins to question his place in the world and his standing before his elders. How does he know he is no longer a boy when he feels he is something more? Where is the line? It doesn't seem that there is one. Boys and men are not necessarily two creatures that never meet; the one has shades of the other always in him, and becoming a man is not a full forsaking of the boy.
The Kings of Summer features Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, and is rated R for being kind of languagy throughout.
Well, it's time to talk about another movie you've never heard of. In my Oscar history quest I have come to 1937's The Life of Emile Zola, the story of the 19th century French writer (played by Paul Muni), infamous for his radical leftist views, unsavoury literature, and accusing the army of covering up its own injustices for the sake of keeping its image clean. To some he was a muckraker, to others a champion of truth. Guess which side the movie takes?
It is what we call a biopic, but really only in the loosest sense of the word. A lengthy disclaimer at the beginning tells us that while some of the events are true, it is mostly fictionalized, the better to immortalize Mr Zola as the French counterpart of Upton Sinclair. Most of the movie is about the end of his life, when he apparently decided to take up the cause of a Jewish army officer wrongfully accused and convicted of treason. He is brought to trial for his accusations, on charges of slander and other things.
The movie itself isn't terribly impressive. I guess we don't really watch it because it hasn't stood the test of time. Today we couldn't name who Zola was. Its legacy is not in the subject matter, but in the delivery, especially in the writing. Until then, lots of film dialog was purely functional, either humorous or dramatic. The arts of playwriting and screenwriting didn't seem to have much overlap. Here, though, the writing is inspired. It is never toned down for the sake of the audience, and retains what must have been the fire and passion of Zola's own work. The best of these occurs in Zola's trial. Muni gives a spectacular monologue, something that would be captivating on stage but becomes arresting on the screen. Throughout the dialog has wit and sparkle, but its greatest achievement is in these few moments.
That said, I wouldn't consider this an essential classic film experience. It is charming, but not touching, and verges on preaching and moralizing a little too often. So now you know.
The Life of Emile Zola features Paul Muni, Joseph Schilkraut, Gloria Holden, and Gale Sondergaard, and is not rated.
Monsters! Robots! Yes! Guillermo del Toro's smashemup has all the cool things about monsters and robots and stuff without smelling like Battleship or anything done by Michael Bay. If you are going to do an over-the-top summer movie, you might as well do it extremely, right?
Pacific Rim is set in the near future and shows us what happens when giant people-hating monsters start attacking from an inter-dimensional portal deep in the Pacific. Mankind makes giant robots called jaegers to combat the beasts, and it is all pretty awesome, whether or not you consider yourself an action movie fanboy or not.
To be clear, I didn't go into this thinking it would be the Movie of My Life. But I was pretty excited. Del Toro is one of my favorite directors (if you haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth go do so now, reading this post can wait), and he has a special knack for monsters and things like of that sort. Combine that with giant robots fighting them, and one wonders why he didn't make this movie sooner. The result is (using my fanboy vernacular) pretty sweet.
That doesn't mean I usually go in for stuff like this. I have already expressed my distaste for movies in this exact same genre, like Transformers and the like. These movies get lost in themselves and turn into hours and hours of mindless destruction because it looks cool. And, I think, in anybody else's hands Pacific Rim would have gone down that same unforgivable path. But del Toro is an artist who respects his audience and the aesthetic he is taking part in. He realizes he is dealing in spectacle rather than in high drama, and doesn't pretend to anything else. Lots of going to movies has always been to see things that you just don't find in the real world. Del Toro glories in this to some extent, but he has a palpable reverence for it. The film is dedicated to some of the pioneerss of film special effects, and there are moments nodding to their genius and influence throughout. In that sense it is almost a fervent love letter to the work of del Toro's soul brothers and godfathers, Harryhausen and Honda.
The movie is by no means the Best Movie Ever. It really comes down to being a monster movie, with any attempt at "going deeper" really only resulting in interesting plot points. If there is such a thing as an "important" monster movie, this may be one. It upped the level of effective visual effects and has gone bigger than things we've seen so far. Then again, that could be the start of an uncomfortable trend, with poser fanboys taking the reins of the next extreme thing instead of artists. Oh well. At any rate, I liked it, and I feel that maybe Ray and Ishirô would have too.
Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 for hardcore robot-monster take-downs and combat-induced swearing, and features Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Ron Perlman.
I love it when movies impress me. I love it when I catch myself leaning in closer to a screen or making comments alone in the dark. In the digital age, though, this hardly ever happens. It's not real, and I know it. Incredible images or sequences of film are only the product of talented nerds working at a computer. So often it is in the movies of decades gone that I find astonishment.
The Great Ziegfeld is not really a great movie. But it has incredible parts that make it worth seeing. It is a loving and flamboyant tribute to one of America's greatest stage producers to ever live, done with a brilliant combination of stage craft and screen spectacle.
The movie is about the life and career of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr, best known for his "Follies", spectacular shows meant to glorify the beauty of the American woman. As a biographical movie it is okay, but we are only ever given one date, and it often jumps periods of years without making mention of it. I'm not even sure if it takes much trouble in dwelling on fact, but that isn't really what the movie is about. It is about his legend as known to the American people of the thirties.
What stands out are the extravagant stage productions inserted into the film, many of which would be a showstopper in another picture. But the crown jewel of these is "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody." (See the clip here, pardon the poor quality.) Its ten minutes or so won the film a Dance Direction Oscar (too bad they don't give those out anymore) and it is entirely deserved. It was my "wow" moment: not because I found a quaint little thing, now done easily but crudely pioneered here, but because the technical and the artistic were so effectively blended. This is why we go to movies, why we see images printed on film and projected onto the silver screen. There is nothing, not advanced digital imaging techniques or cheap 3D thrills, that can replace this kind of artistry. But I am afraid this may be a thing of the past.
So, it isn't a great movie, but it does great things. It's too long and its narrative arc doesn't make much sense. But it is a fine example of a craft I don't think we have any more, and reminds us why we watch movies at all.
The Great Ziegfeld features William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, and the guy who plays Oz, and is not rated.
by Chase Harrison