Jul 28, 2011

Trigun: Badlands Rumble (2010): B+

You can thank the persistence and love of committed fans for the existence of this movie. The original, short-lived anime series (itself based on a manga) wasn't even a hit with local Japanese audiences; only when the series debuted in America did it began to develop the cult following that sees it alive and well today. For those unacquainted with the material, the central character in Trigun's world is one Vash the Stampede, a legendary figure adorned in a red cape, well known and much feared for his lethal force and renowned ability to destroy entire cities. Alas, the truth differs much from the legend, and most of the damage attributed to Vash originates with the bounty hunters aiming to collect the substantial reward on his head (early on in Badlands Rumble, even newcomers will be quickly familiar with Vash's habit of preventing violence by the most extreme measures necessary, most of which include his acting like an utter fool). His misadventures - which routinely include two yin-yang female insurance agents and a clergyman who wields a devastating gun in the shape of a cross - span several decades in the events of Badlands Rumble, leading to much pontification on fate, the meaning of life, and the virtues of mercy and pacifism. Vash's seemingly foolish actions (like intervening with warring criminals) are given the long-run, It's a Wonderful Life treatment, and wisdom readily emerges from his apparently reckless behavior ("Isn't it better that they're all still alive?"). Quirky doesn't begin to describe Vash's character (note his "cuddling" of wrists and ankles), and like the preceding series, Badlands Rumble is somewhat remarkable in regards to its textured characters. From the expressive, economic animation (computer generated animations are sparingly incorporated into traditional hand-drawn cells) to the more blatant rip-n-roar of the films action setpieces (an opening hallway skirmish with booby traps might be tops, but the last twenty minutes are nearly breathless), this cinematic treatment proves a cognitively satisfying and richly visceral experience. Fans, rejoice. There still isn't nearly enough Trigun to go around, but we'll take what we can get.

Jul 23, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011): B

Visually electrifying, modestly sermonizing and well-rounded for condescension-free enjoyment by those of all ages, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a virtual equal of its 2008 predecessor, and together the two easily surpass the Shrek films as the superior of Dreamworks' animated franchises. Having spent the first film ascending to the unexpectedly bestowed status of the Dragon Warrior, panda Po (an effectively cast Jack Black) must now confront the internal as well as the external; inner peace is what he must find to reach his true potential, and for his superior, Master Shifu (a nondescript Dustin Hoffman), the process only took fifty years. Po begins to suspect - courtesy a recurring image from his childhood - that he was a adopted, a painful, albeit amusing development that temporarily ruptures his relationship with his father, a goose named Ping (James Hong, the eye doctor from Blade Runner). Po's personal discoveries are schematic, to be sure, but there's a genuine feeling of character here absent from most anthropomorphized animal fodder, while the use of various species suggests a world dually segregated and tolerant of the melting pot, much like our own. Po's blindness to a species gap is indicative of some kind of voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Or something. What's lacking - same as the original - can be found (or rather, can't) in the supporting characters, whose celebrity voices (chosen for name value more than vocal talent) look good on the marquee but fail to make these creations pop like the rest of the film. Fortunately, these weak links aren't as essential to the chain. As was Ian McShane before him, Gary Oldman proves a superior villain, and Jack Black's enthusiasm hasn't yet wavered. Inventive dream sequences and no shortage of cultural relish help make this one of the more beautiful mainstream films in the recent years; even when the plot suggests a holding device, the continuous stream of visual wit more than compensates (a scene where a parade dragon "eats" the villainous henchman may be tops). At the end of the day, Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't just a model sequel or family film: as an action movie, it's superior to most of what's out there, animated or not. Don't underestimate it.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): C+

The only amazing thing about Captain America is how utterly unremarkable it is. Sad to say, but it's that very creative staleness that's become par for the course for Marvel studios, whose last movie worthy of a genuine recommendation in my book, Iron Man, was practically an accident. It seems that letting Ang Lee (and, eventually, Sam Raimi) run too far with their own instincts has inoculated the studio from ever again giving a director more than passing authority on their franchise material. God knows Kenneth Branagh couldn't do much with Thor, and now Joe Johnson (of the underrated and moody horror homage The Wolfman) is saddled with the mundanely rendered origin story of WWII hero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a strong-willed weakling from Brooklyn routinely refused from the draft, but whose persistence and guts see him recruited as part of a military super-soldier experiment that transforms him into the titular good guy. As far as boring blockbusters go, Captain America is a cut above the rest, its superior mediocrity more the result of Johnson's expert direction and action staging than the capabilities of the cast, although those shouldn't be forgotten, either. Sadly, one of the best performances is attached to the shortest-lived character, while Evans fits the film like a glove: he's immensely likable, yet quickly dulls the senses. Leave it to Tommy Lee Jones to make an impression, with what amounts to a more smartassed take on Ed Tom from No Country for Old Men. Despite the presence of many players, renegade Nazis, Toby Jones, and nothing less than the power of the Gods being at stake, the narrative loses most of its steam after Rogers' initial transformation. Lacking much in the way of character conflict or palpable drama (it's running on montage fumes by the halfway point), the film shrivels through unrealized media satire, undercooked romance, and an altogether undaunting antagonist (amazingly, given that the role is that of none other than Hugo Weaving), before ultimately sputtering to an unsatisfying stop and yet another reason to be sick of Samuel L. Jackson's eyepatch-adorned face. Good try, Joe, but I can't imagine anyone making worthwhile a script so phone-in and paint-by-numbers. The actual previews for other movies were more entertaining than this two-hour preview for The Avengers. I may bow out of this genre entirely for the time being. Wake me up for The Dark Knight Rises. Or Hellboy III.

Jul 20, 2011

Duel (1971): B+

As the cinematic debut of Steven Spielberg (even though it was originally produced as a TV movie, this is as much of a movie as any), Duel has some undoubtedly big shoes to fill, and that's the case whether you think Spielberg is infallible or intolerable. Possibly you're aware that I'm much closer to the former camp, and if there's one thing that keeps me from loving Duel entirely, it's the knowledge that Spielberg would only improve (for many filmmakers, it would be an easy career high). On its own, it's a startlingly pure, assured piece of psychological horror indicative of a major talent with an instinctive approach to subjectivity. Adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story, it was successful enough on television to get a theatrical re-release years later, and as a result, two primary cuts of the film exist: the 74-minute theatrical cut, and the 90-minute cut expanded for theaters (the only version I've seen, an oversight I intend to correct), and available more or less intact on DVD (some shots and voice over lines have been removed). My feelings about the film haven't changed over the years; even seeing it in theaters, there remained some pacing issues, which isn't entirely unexpected when a filmmaker - especially a young one - tackles a project of such daunting conceptual limitations (hell, even a veteran Michael Mann could only come up with so many in-vehicle camera angles in Collateral). The main (and in most ways only) character here is one David Mann (Dennis Weaver, a superior everyman), who is traveling in his Plymouth through desert country on a business trip; a tanker truck on the rode first annoys, then obstructs, then attempts to kill him, beyond any reasonable doubt. We (the audience) catch an insubstantial glimpse of the would-be killer at least once, but Mann remains entirely in the dark as to the face of his predator. One of the more nail-biting features of the latter 20th Century; it just grazes the edge of existentialism. Seen in his filmography, the film's rusted, growling tanker truck is an obvious predecessor to the man-eating Great White of Jaws, sharing in its pitilessness. And it's every bit as terrifying.

Jul 19, 2011

Battle Royale (2000): B+

Kinji Fukasaku's modern cult classic Battle Royale doesn't get any points for subtlety, but nor does it need them. Pitched with the insatiable verve of a TV game show and the vacant regret of a Grand Theft Auto video game, this dystopian satire proves cutting even as it bludgeons, standing on the shoulders of voyeurs past (Hitchcock, Powell) as it puts its own gnarly spin on the gut punching methods of audience implication. The Survivor meets Lord of the Flies premise concerns the economically depraved Japan of the new millennium and the passing the Millennium Educational Reform Act, i.e., students throughout the country are kept in line by a yearly lottery that selects one classroom to be ported to a secluded island and forced to collectively fight to the death. (Don't get attached.) The details are learned alongside the unfortunate 15-year-olds selected for this years game. The camera is horrified of what follows, but simultaneously, the reptilian attitudes of survival create an intoxicating contradiction of tones, especially as friendships are tested, love endures, and bodies start piling up. Battle Royale works as its own scathing response, not so much courting controversy as exaggerating for the effect of the statement, ultimately rendering things meta via (among other touches both slight and sprawling) an in-movie sports stat animation device: think NFL turned Death Race. Part teen angst drama, part fork-in-your-eye commentary, part black comedy, part survival thriller. It's less than a masterpiece, but it's well deserving of it's popularity.

Jul 12, 2011

Thor (2011): D+

There have been far less competently assembled superhero films (think Catwoman or Wolverine), but few can compete with Thor for sheer torture of what is best described by my own semi-immediate internal response: "This? I have to sit through, and stay awake during, another hour and twenty minutes of this?" Branagh's name is in the credits, but the film only bears a wisp of his touch; I suspect this one was done in rapid assembly-line fashion, without love, for a pay day, and such as it is, I can't hold it against the auteur. And really, who could put any genuine, creative love into this dusty, mechanical screenplay? Once you're past the start-in-the-middle device, the weightlessness of the drama becomes achingly apparent; the whole thing is so brittle in conviction and purpose that you fear the screen will crack apart. I didn't stay for the end credits Sam Yell Jackson cameo (I can't wait for The Avengers, if only because I'm tired of other movies functioning as advertising for it), but I now wish I had, as it'd have likely taken the total number of minutes I enjoyed in the whole film from about eight to about ten. The initial displacement of Thor - ancient God stripped of power and banished to the mortal realm - makes great, if fleeting, use of Branagh's skill with physical comedy. And some of the stuff that comes out of Natalie Portman's mouth is genuinely funny, for reasons both good and bad for her stardom. Alas, the pleasures are few: even the purportedly epic sights and money shots smack of green screen laziness, suggesting nothing more than an animated storyboard (minus real involvement, we're reduced to merely looking at stuff), and don't get me started on the splintered look of the action "scenes." Branagh's chosen style (and that's a generous term to use here) consists primarily of tilting the camera about forty degrees every fifth or sixth shot. Fans of the source material might find more worth here, but for how conceptually alluring it is, Thor is a rather pitiful utilization, for the uninitiated at least.

Jul 11, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

Though less morally empowering than The Tigger Movie or Piglet's Big Movie, there's still something to be said for the film's crystalline look at friendship and selflessness; Pooh's moral triumph isn't all that weighty, but it's almost existentially profound to see the silly old bear forgo honey a little while longer because of someone else's needs.

Jul 6, 2011

Super 8 (2011): C+


If I were to weigh the merits of Super 8 on a scale of purely quantifiable pros and cons, it would be impossible to not recommend it. Unfortunately, the experience of watching a movie is a different beast than the numerical sum of its parts, and as far as cinematic experiences go, this one's a case of ultimately dashed high hopes, no matter how much it has going for it along the way. No doubt, J.J. Abram's expertise is as apparent here as it was in the immensely enjoyable popcorn actioner Mission: Impossible III and 2009's spunky Star Trek sequel/prequel/reboot, and similarly unmistakable is his knowledge of and appreciation for the romantic wonder of the early films of Steven Spielberg (whose serves as producer here). Alas, it's in Super 8's meticulous attempts to recreate that magic (think E.T. + Close Encounters x Poltergeist) that it ultimately comes up short, fizzling at the moment is should detonate and instead revealing a Frankenstein soul grafted together from predecessors to the point of overdependence, rather than finding its own, one organic to the proceedings at hand.

The story is exquisite crackerjack material (an escaped malicious alien, military, cold war paranoia, American suburbia, etc.), all the better as seen primarily through the eyes of a group of teenage friends who hope to spend the summer months finishing their shoestring budget zombie movie in time for an upcoming short film festival. Makeup artist Joe (Joel Courtney) is the axis on which the drama pivots: reeling from the recent loss of his mother and subsequent tension with his distant police deputy father, his efforts to lose himself in ragtag filmmaking are upset - in no particular order - by a budding romance with no less than the daughter of the person most responsible for his mothers untimely death, and the aforementioned extraterrestrial on the loose, an event inadvertently witnessed by the young filmmakers when a late-night shoot at a railway station sees an Air Force train deliberately derailed (in awesome setpiece fashion) by a former military scientist long since discharged for subversive conduct. The military's been hiding something, and that something is both hungry and pissed off.

The scenes involving these kids are the most effective and genuinely endearing the film has to offer; coupled with a knowing and humorous look at do-it-yourself filmmaking, Super 8 frequently teases the viewer with a self-reflexive commentary on cinema as self-discovery that unfortunately never develops beyond a vague thesis statement. Even so, there's plenty of truth to the way these adolescents interact, and Abram's choice (as screenwriter) to leave the monster offscreen for most of the film allows them to function as genuine characters in ways that the plot ultimately doesn't know how to fully capitalize on. As heartthrob Alice, Elle Fanning turns in a pitch-perfect child star performance that, along with her sadly unseen turn in Sofia Coppola's sadly unseen Somewhere, should propel her to stardom. (Oscar, this is something you should reward.) Amongst child and adult performer alike, there's not a weak link here, but that can't stop Super 8 from hitting a wall of thematic shortsightedness once weapons start blazing in the third act. Schematics kick in, complex relationships get wrapped up with insufficient neatness, and Abrams elicits little in the way of genuine wonder with his otherworldly revelations; the hand-me-down emotions are washed out, and fleeting value notwithstanding, the whole thing retrospectively smacks of a cinematic paint-by-numbers kit. A semi-brilliant end credits sequence salvages some of the lost promise, but by then the pleasantries feel like a mere afterthought.