Thursday, May 31, 2012

REVIEW: Men in Black 3

Since Men in Black 3 trades heavily in alternate realities, I'll give the movie an alternate title: Men in Black to the Future 3.

And I mean that as a compliment. Quality-wise, Men in Black follows the same trajectory as the Back to the Future trilogy: Terrific opening, problematic sequel, much-improved third installment.

But it's not enough to say that Men in Black 3 is an improvement over 2. That wouldn't take much. The second movie wasn't awful, it was just kind of ... there. Typical middling sequel. Didn't hate it, didn't really like it either. So I'm very happy - and very pleasantly surprised - to report that the third movie is actually kind of great.

That threw me, given all the reports I read about this movie's chaotic production. I was especially troubled by the fact they started filming without a finished script - a bad idea for any movie, but especially for an action comedy, which requires a lot of fine tuning if it's going to work. And amazingly, Men in Black 3 works wonders.

One of the smartest moves by the filmmakers was to put J back in a place akin to where he was in the first film - stuck in an unfamiliar world. This time, the unfamiliar world is 1969, where J has time-traveled to prevent the demise of K. I really shouldn't say more than about the plot - the less you know, the better.

What I can tell you is something that was evident in the trailers: Josh Brolin is fantastic as the young K - and he doesn't just copy Tommy Lee Jones. Brolin conveys some of the same deadpan stoicism, but this younger K is also a bit lighter on his feet - he's not quite so world-weary yet, and he plays off Will Smith extremely well.

The picture's midsection moves in fits and starts but recovers for a great third act that packs something even the first movie didn't have: an emotional wallop. I daresay I was really moved in a way that I never thought I would be.

Oh sure, you'll always have people who complain about the plot holes in the time travel, but you know what? When you have an alien with hand vaginas that shoot poison darts, you're allowed to break a few time travel rules. If it leads to an ending that's actually touching, we'll give logic a break.

And here's an added bonus: Even the post-converted 3D is terrific. Although director Barry Sonnenfeld didn't shoot in 3D, he clearly designed his shots for the format, with a lot of zany pop-out effects that are actually worth the upcharge.

Much has been made of the third movie's soft opening at the box office, but the opening was soft because a lot of people didn't like the second movie. I hope they give the third movie legs. I know I found my time - and this franchise - were redeemed.




Thursday, May 17, 2012

Did Star Wars kill Roger Corman?

Every so often, someone comes along and blames George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for ruining the movies. The argument is always the same. Before the bearded ones came along, Hollywood was making artsy films that meant something. After Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood began making money more than anything else.

I've always been able to brush off that argument is disingenuous nonsense. But what do you do when the accuser is Jack Nicholson?

I was watching the excellent documentary Corman's World, about the man who was the king of the B-movies. His movies were quite literally cheap and often unabashedly exploitive. And most of them made money. One of the few that didn't was 1962's The Intruder, a racial drama starring William Shatner as a cracker.

Corman was never going to be Stanley Kramer, so most of the time he cranked out schlock, and he occasionally lucked out into making an actual good movie like The Pit and the Pendulum and the original Little Shop of Horrors, which starred one Jack Nicholson (in the role Bill Murray played later.)

Corman gave Nicholson his break, so it's not at all surprising to watch him boost Corman. It is surprising to hear him say the words, "I hated Star Wars."

Nicholson says, "If Star Wars doesn't make a ton of cabbage, we'd still have little green lines across the screen." The documentary basically argues that once Jaws and especially Star Wars made the popcorn movie hugely profitable, that sparked the twilight of Corman's career.

There is some validity to that. Certainly after the juggernaut of the Force, it became that much harder for Corman's scrappy little movies to break through. Cheap sci-fi and horror were eventually relegated direct to home video. It's not unlike what happened in the porno industry. In the 70s, some porn films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door we're actually kind of artistic. In the VHS age, porn became just an endless parade of friction.

Maybe Star Wars took Corman out of theaters, and that is too bad. But it hardly ruined him. In fact, Star Wars itself is not unlike a Corman movie with a really big budget. Have you looked at the 1977 film lately? Sure, it's big piece of myth-making, but in many ways, it's a scrappy little film, especially compared to the other slicker episodes. A line like "But I was going to the Tosche station to pick up some power converters" would be right at home in a Corman movie.

And Corman's spirit lives on today, not only in protégés like Scorsese, Howard, Sayles and Demme, but also in disciples like Robert Rodriguez, who is a past master at making movies on the cheap, and especially Quentin Tarantino, whose pictures are Corman flicks writ large. Their Grindhouse was a very bloody valentine to Corman.

Nicholson complains that instead of making 12 movies a year a studio makes "12 circuses." He's not wrong, and I'm mindful of that the week that Battleship comes out. But wasn't one of Nicholson's best-known roles in a circus called Batman? Playing a clown, no less?

But I don't want to be too hard on Jack. Corman's World also treats us to the sight of Jack Nicholson crying during his interview. And he's not acting. For that alone, Corman's World is wild.



Sunday, May 13, 2012

REVIEW: Dark Shadows

Last week, I wrote that The Avengers was more than the sum of its parts. This week, I'm sorry to report that Tim Burton's Dark Shadows is less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it's Burton's weakest film to date.

At first glance, Dark Shadows and Tim Burton seem tailor-made for each other. The trailer indicated a goofy/scary good time, not unlike Beetlejuice. The prologue is certainly ravishing, with sweeping imagery and oozing portent. When, as the trailers foretold, the story flashes forward to 1972, and the humor gets sillier, the movie somehow manages to hang together.

But then, slowly but surely, Dark Shadows begins to unravel. Plot threads and characters drop in and out with no rhyme or reason, except to set up redundant action scenes. It's as if Burton and his writer, Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) can't decide on a tone, or even whose story to tell. By the end of the movie, when we get the inevitable drop for a sequel, I could only roll my eyes and say, "Good luck with that."

I can't fault the cast. Depp has come under fair criticsm lately for flying on kind of a zany autopilot, which I thought he was doing in Burton's overrated Alice in Wonderland. This time, at least, he pours his heart into his performance, having fun with the dual nature of Barnabas Collins. Depp is one of the few actors who can say a line like, "It is with sincere regret that I must kill you all," and make it sound both intimidating and sad.

The other actors try their best, but are undone by sloppy, shallow writing. It's nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer reunited with her Batman Returns director, but she's given almost nothing to do. Eva Green sexes it up nicely as Collins' nemesis, in a role Pfeiffer might have once played, but her character is poorly defined almost from the start. Helena Bonham Barter has too little screen time as a duplicitous doctor, and the misuse of the talented Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick Ass, Hugo) via a dumb third act revelation, is unforgivable.

I wish that Burton would produce an original property rather than try to graft his sensibility on an existing property, which he has now done for four movies (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland and now Dark Shdows). At least with the upcoming Frankenweenie, he's adapting himself.

I have only a passing familiarity with the original Dark Shadows, but I can't imagine it would have developed its devoted following if it were as scattershot as Burton has made it. His trajectory of late is worrying. I thought Alice was a misfire, but that at least had great performances by Bonham Carter and Mia Wasikowska to keep it afloat. Despite Depp's best efforts, Dark Shadows sinks.



Saturday, May 12, 2012

Yellow Submarine

My review of Yellow Submarine could be more of a Tweet than a review: "It was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre when I was about 5, so I think it's awesome."

The End. (Hey, that's the title of a Beatles song!)

Yes, it combines my two great obsessions, the Beatles and the movies. And it being the first movie I can remember seeing in a theater (then the Victory, now the Victoria Theatre), the personal connection is powerful and undeniable. But my love for Yellow Submarine cuts much deeper than that. I saw Help! around the same time, in the same theatre. That's Beatles and a movie too, but I don't love Help nearly as much as I love Yellow Submarine. Why is that?

I saw Yellow Submarine In the theater, in a new restoration on Saturday. That experience opened the floodgates for me, not only of memories but also of pure dazzlement. The movie is a wonder, not just visually, but verbally. It's damn funny.

"Frankenstein?" Oh yeah, I used to go out with his sister. "His sister?" Yeah, Phyllis.

"Let's get this vessel shipshape!" I kind of like it the way it is. Submarine-shape.

"If I spoke prose, you'd all find out, I don't know what I talk about!"

(Cheif Blue Meanie laughs manically) "Hee Hee Hee! Oh, I haven't laughed so much since Pompeii!"

"It's no longer a blue world, Max. Where can we go?" Argentina?

And then there are the images. Sure, it's easy to argue that Yellow Submarine is best appreciated when you're stoned, but as Ken Kesey said, that's true of any movie. Besides, I've never been stoned in my life, and this movie is still a trip.

What struck me about my newest viewing was that the character animation is actually kind of crude. The design, and the little in-jokes within the design, are breathtaking. The restoration made the "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" scene look like beautiful paint splatters.


Before today, I'd never noticed that the cats with flower tails that pop up in "Nowhere Man" also show up in Pepperland. I'd never noticed that the book Jeremy reads when he's fighting the Blue Meanies has a title: Karate.

It goes without saying that the music is great, but even there the movie has unique treats. The mix of the title song in the restored version reveals sounds that were previously buried. The version of "It's All Too Much" in the film has a verse not on the album. Even the bit where the Beatles sing a line of George's "Think for Yourself" is an outtake from a rehearsal.

All told, I love Yellow Submarine even more than I do another great film also embraced as a "head trip." Disney's Fantasia. Fantasia may be more artful, but Yellow Submarine is a hell of a lot more fun.

The new restoration of the film will be released on disc June 5.


PS - If the Victoria could ever show Yellow Submarine in their summer classic film series, that would make me very happy.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Revenge - er, Return of the screenings!

Look out, folks. Sir Critic is back!

Granted, I haven't really gone anywhere, but lately I've been a little scarce in these parts. Chalk it up to a truly awful time I had last year, which broke me of the blogging habit and - if I'm being honest with myself, made me more than a little lazy about posting here.

Well, laziness begone! Thanks to the good folks at the Owens Group in Cincinnati, I will once again be attending preview screenings. Those are the ones you usually hear about on the radio - be the 43rd caller, and you win passes to Battleship! (Insert ironic eyebrows here.) To cut to the chase, that means I will be able to post reviews for some movies the day said movies come out - like I used to do when my blog was hosted by my employer.

However, I will be posting on this blog. And I will not be able to make every screening. I cover the city of Fairfield for my paper, and work obligations must come first. (To any of my bosses reading this - hey there!) I had to sacrifice Tim Burton's Dark Shadows tonight, although maybe that's just as well since the reviews aren't terribly enthused. It looks like Men in Black 3 won't work out either, alas. I'll still see and review those films, I just won't be able to publish those reviews the day of their release. But I'll get them up here as soon as I can after I see them.

I also won't see every movie on the screening schedule. As a general rule, I avoid movies starring Adam Sandler, and I won't strain my brain to see That's My Boy. One of the advantages of being a critic on my own dime is I can make my own picks and pans. But I won't avoid every painful experience. Besides, it's too much damn fun to rake Michael Bay over the coals. And this way, I won't have to voluntarily give him my money.

But I want to accentuate the positive. Hopefully I can start day and date screenings very soon. So you keep your eyes peeled, and I'll keep my fingers crossed that I'll be able to screen a certain movie with a football field imploding and Anne Hathaway in a very tight outfit. For I am web film critics' reckoning.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Ebertfest wrap

OK, NOW to pick up where I left off with Ebertfest.

The first film of Friday, April 27 was On Borrowed Time, a documentary about filmmaker Paul Cox, the director who has been to Ebertfest most often. I was at a distinct disadvantage here, because I haven't seen a single film by the man. I will say the doc convinced me to rectify that, and I can see why Roger feels an affinity with Cox. Both men went through life-altering medical procedures, both came somewhat close to death - and most importantly, both men lived to tell about it.

Next up was something I've been lucky enough to enjoy in the past: live musical accompaniment to silent film. But I'd never done it quite this way - through a series of delightfully bizarre film shorts. I could have sworn one of the shorts was by Georges Melies, made famous lately by Scorsese's Hugo. It turned out not to be, it was actually by a Mexican filmmaker who closely emulated Melies' techniques. Another short was a cartoon by Winsor McCay, who was famous for Gertie the dinosaur.


Now, we didn't get to see Gertie, but we saw a very similar creature in Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet. And this fella had an even bigger appetite than Gertie.



I could not do justice to the weirdness of the other shorts. What I tweeted was this: You simply have not lived until you have seen a silent animated short with Mr. and Mrs. Beetle & a grasshopper cameraman.

Wrapping up the evening was A Seperation, this year's Best Foreign Language film, which I had already seen and indeed put on my ten best list. Now I think I didn't put it high enough. Michael Barker, of Sony Pictures Classics, called it "a perfect film," and he's very nearly correct. Though it's steeped in Iranian culture, the film's humanity speaks volumes. The best new film of Ebertfest.

Saturday began with Higher Ground, a film starring and directed by Vera Farmiga. It was based on a memoir by Carolyn Briggs, who was in attendance. At first, the film seems to celebrate holy roller culture, but it's much cannier than that. It shows how religion can be both fulfilling and stultifying. Too many movies emphasize one over the other; it was refreshing to find a film that embraced both viewpoints.

Next up was Patang, centering around a large kite festival in India. The film is pictorially lovely but narratively wispy; the story simply did not stay with me. Quite honestly, it was much more interesting when the projectionists had to restart the film to adjust the mattes because subtitles were being cut off. I the interim, director Prashant Bhargarva freestyled an Indian rap.

Wrapping up the penultimate day was Take Shelter, another film I am now convinced I did not rate highly enough. More than many other movies, Take Shelter is better seen than read about, so I'm not going to try to describe it, but I can promise you'll be talking about the ending for a very long time. Director Jeff Nichols was there, along with the brilliant actor Michael Shannon. Alas, the lovely Jessica Chastain was not present, so it was a good thing I didn't bring flowers. The Q&A with Shannon and Nichols was fabulous in itself, especially when Shannon cracked that he and Nichols had similar assess. You can view it and all the other panels here.

You may note that I said A Seperation was the best new film of the best. That's because they saved the very best for last: Citizen Kane. But it wasn't just any showing of Kane. It was played with Roger's illuminating commentary track, so this was the first time his voice filled the Virigina Theatre since he lost the ability to speak. Afterwards, Roger's wife Chaz came out, her eyes filled with tears. She had never actually sat down and listened to her husband's commentary until that very day. Hearing his voice again, talking about a film he so loves, was deeply moving for her and for us, though I'm sure many of us had heard the commentary before.

I will wrap by saying that too many film buffs I know dont see what all the fuss is about in Kane. Any self-respecting film fan owes it to themselves to see it with new eyes by listening to Roger's commentary. Once you've heard the many things he has to say, I am confident you'll see (and hear) what you've been missing. Because that's what any great film experience does - it makes the movies better.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

REVIEW: The Avengers

I'll get back to my long-delayed wrap-up of Ebertfest shortly. First thing's first.

People sometimes say that movies are greater than the sum of their parts. I don't think that's ever been truer than with Joss Whedon's The Avengers.

Truth be told, I didn't love the movies leading up to The Avengers. The most immediate predecessors, Iron Man 2, Captain America and Thor, were all decent but underwhelming. I expected more form each. I didn't care for Louis Letterer's The Incredible Hulk, and I even thought the original Iron Man was a bit overrated. Great first two-thirds, lame climax brought down by lame villain.

it was Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America that caused the gravest concern, however. I thought every one of those movies bogged down because they concentrated too hard on setting up Avengers and not hard enough telling their own stories. They felt scattershot. It's very telling that my favorite scene in Captain America was the musical number written by Alan Menken.

So I actually approached The Avengers biting my nails a bit. Having seen the movie now, I can say without hesitation that I'm happily eating crow. Simply put, the movie is the best one yet produced by Marvel Studios by far.

The action scenes are astounding. They held me in the kind of breathless thrall that James Cameron usually creates - but I wasn't really surprised by that. For all the movie's technical flair, its canniest feat is actually in Whedon's writing.

With so many A-list heroes occupying the screen, The Avengers could have easily become bloated, to say nothing of confusing. Thankfully, it's neither. (It helps, but it is not absolutely essential, to see any of the previous films. Thor is probably the one that has the most backstory for this movie. Whedon so skillfully juggles multiple story lines that no one character dominates the movie - visually or thematically (unless you count the Hulk, 'cos he's fricken huge). Among superhero epics, this one is truly a team effort, and you will rarely find a more persuasive argument for the phrase "Better Together."

Speaking of the Hulk, I still feel that too many people were unduly harsh to the Ang Lee film. However, I have to concede, the character's never been put to better use than in The Avengers. Whedon smartly acknowledges the green guys's gravitas while actually having a lot of fun with him. (I do wish Whedon had better explained who Cobie Smulders' Agent Hill was.)

So is The Avengers the best superhero movie of all time? No. It does not have the emotional oomph of Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight Rises, but I can say without equivocation that it is the first great film of 2012.



PS: Make sure you stay ALL THE WAY through the credits - even past all the tech folks - or you'll miss the biggest laugh of the movie.