Tag Archives: movie

Cinematic Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, I went and saw the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. It was a memorable trip, even overlooking the movie itself. See, for the first time, I opted for the D-BOX experience: motorized seats that vibrate and move in correspondence to onscreen action. Fast 8 turned out to be the perfect movie for the system, as every rev, every crash, every explosion reverberated through the chair to my very core. It was so much fun. I was giddy – and sold – from the opening sequence.

I’ve loved movies ever since I was a kid. I suppose a part of that was due to me growing up in Los Angeles. I couldn’t help but be immersed in the culture of Hollywood. I’d go to the mall and it would be where they filmed Terminator 2 (Glendale Galleria) or Back to the Future (Puente Hills Mall). I’d recognize “fake” newscasters in any number of films as the real newscasters on my local television stations. When I was in middle school, my sister even took me along to be an extra in a crowd scene for a forgettable Billy Crystal movie.

But my love for the movies outstripped that of fellow Angelenos, perhaps a product of circumstance. My folks were working six, seven days a week, and I found myself with a fair amount of time to kill going as far back as my elementary school years. My cousin and I would roam the streets in our suburban neighorhood regularly on Saturdays, and we’d invariably end up either playing arcade games at Subway or stopping by the local multiplex. The employees there were lax about movie-hopping; it became a habit.

By the time I reached high school, I was a full-blown addict.* I loved everything about the theatrical experience. I loved seeing the marquees out front when we drove past, back when the only other recourse to find out what was playing was to telephone in or buy a paper. I loved seeing the giant posters and fancy cardboard displays that accompanied new and upcoming releases. I relished seeing a movie with one friend Saturday and another with someone else Sunday, or just going alone for a double- or triple-header. Once, I even stayed for four movies.

*I’d even read book adaptations of things like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Little Big League; it was absurd. I’ve outgrown that, but even now I’m still drawn to stories that become movies.

It didn’t hurt that I simply liked movies. Even as I watched my fair share of awful new releases, I never walked out on any, and just about never regretted seeing anything on the big screen (though spending $22 at the San Francisco Metreon for the abysmal Men in Black II comes to mind). Every experience offered something worthwhile – a good line, a silly laugh, a striking shot: moments of novelty and genuine inspiration I held onto. I never considered myself a movie expert and certainly not a movie connoisseur; no, I was always a fan.

It was in college that I began to gain a greater appreciation for cinematic history. I took just a single film course – “History of the American Motion Picture” – but fell in love in particular with The Gold Rush (1925) and It Happened One Night (1934). They opened my mind to the timelessness of the medium. Conveniently, this was during the heyday of Netflix’s home delivery service. I kept a steady stream of DVDs flowing in my apartment, taking full advantage of my three-at-a-time plan, all in addition to my regular trips to the theater.

There was so much out there for me to discover – films of all eras, and eventually all languages. After a friend recommended The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I went on a long run of spaghetti westerns, then shifted over to regular westerns. I’d get to The Magnificent Seven which would lead to the original Seven Samurai which would then take me down Kurosawa lane. Or I’d crush on Audrey Hepburn and watch from her collection, then Marilyn Monroe and hers. I was learning without the structure of a classroom.

The fact that I was at UCLA also meant I was a short walk from the historic movie palaces in Westwood. It added another dimension to my fandom. On weekday afternoons when the crowd was scarce, it’d be me and a scattershot of senior citizens and the self- or perhaps un-employed in any number of beautiful, cavernous halls. The well-worn cliché of being transported to another world for a couple of hours had immeasurable value for my state of mind, being depressed in college. The theatrical experience had evolved into both hobby and therapy.

After college came graduate school, and ten minutes down the road from the university I attended in Irvine, California, there existed a real, honest-to-goodness, 70 mm IMAX theater. It changed my life. Movies had always been an event, but broadcast on a 90’ by 65’ screen – roughly the size of a seven story building, they became more. Everything felt immersive, exhilarating, simply overwhelming.* I watched summer blockbusters in awe, my brain reeling from the stimulus, my heart full. IMAX was a high of an experience that I have never been able to replicate.

*Watch any of the Transformers series on a real IMAX and try not to feel like a kid. They’re objectively terrible movies; I’ve enjoyed all of them nonetheless.

Graduate school was a fantastic time for my movie fandom overall. With a little bit of pocket change and a great deal of spare time, I averaged 80 trips to the theater a year, cranking it up to 100 as I shifted from coursework to dissertation writing. I developed a regular rotation of five or six local theaters, my individual trips determined by showtimes or discounts or membership perks. My mom swam in free tickets and concessions. I maintained a blog exclusively about movies for a year; I even created and taught a course on “International Politics and Film” one summer.

Moving from Southern California – and later, the United States – has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for film. Of course, as was inevitable, I even wrote a garbage screenplay of my own. But it has been fascinating to witness movie cultures abroad as an expat and traveler. To stand for the Thai royal anthem before the previews begin, to climb awkwardly over Japanese audiences sitting through the entirety of the end credits as a sign of respect, to wrap my head around three rows of subtitles (English, French, German) onscreen in Switzerland. They’re indelible memories.

Movies comprise a significant part of the tapestry that is my life. I can draw upon so many memories – good and bad – of childhood and adolescence, friendships and relationships, profound moments of self-realization to utterly unremarkable days, that are inextricably linked to films and film experiences. Granted, I will never in my life again movie-hop two or three screens every other weekend. But whether I’m in an uncomfortable chair in a last-run theater or a state of the art “motion system” on opening night, I will forever remain captivated by the wonder, the spectacle – the magic of cinema.

(Photo by I, Sailko, GFDL, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Most Watchable Movie Ever Made

And now, for something completely meaningless…

In May 2015, news came out that Warner Bros. had greenlit a new version of the 1993 action-thriller The Fugitive. There was scant detail provided – whether the project would be a sequel or reboot or remake, if Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones would be involved, and so forth – and that remains the case to this day. The only piece of information I could find concerns the involvement of screenwriter Christina Hodson, credited with 2016’s Shut In (owner of a sparkling 3% on Rotten Tomatoes).

There are no original ideas in Hollywood, of course. Books, television shows, video games, board games, toys, and even phone apps have made the leap to the silver screen in recent years. Everything that has been proven to sell once, in any medium, has been recycled to sell again, time and time again. By one count, there will be 43 sequels, reboots, and remakes in 2017. This includes Universal trying to refranchise The Mummy into their monsterverse, and Kenneth Branagh revisiting the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express (based on the Agatha Christie novel), for starters.

However, there is something about the idea of touching The Fugitive I find especially egregious. As I glance at entertainment news almost two years later, I find myself even now dreading the inevitable update that lists the director or actors involved in the project. I realize that The Fugitive itself originated on television in the 1960s, and inspired another short-lived television reboot in the early 2000s – the property is hardly an “original.” But my problem with a movie redo is simple. The Fugitive is perfect. It is immensely watchable and rewatchable. It holds up in every aspect.

For starters, the script of The Fugitive is expertly crafted. The prologue establishes its premise in mere minutes. The wife of Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) is murdered, he accused and found guilty of the crime. Flashbacks trace the couple’s last night together, spent at a fundraising event. The scenes are casual, seemingly nonchalant, but, unbeknownst to us at this point, hints. For now though, we simply follow Kimble – to the emergency surgery he is called in to perform, then back home where he finds his dead wife, and her killer, the one-armed man. We know Kimble is innocent. But we also know how it looks.

Kimble escapes, of course, in a sensational bus-train crash sequence as memorable an action setpiece as any in cinematic history. That’s when the movie truly begins. We have Kimble on the run, desperate to buy time both to clear his name and to uncover the truth behind his wife’s murder. And we have Deputy Samuel Gerard (Jones) and his team of US Marshals, tasked with finding an escaped murderer and bringing him to justice. “I’m not trying to solve a puzzle here,” Gerard says. “Well, I am,” Kimble responds.

It is precisely the puzzle that separates The Fugitive from any number of chase thrillers, providing the narrative much depth. While the entire first act is about Kimble wrestling to stay free in the immediate aftermath of his escape (including a highway chase scene), the movie evolves deftly and begins to ebb and flow with the puzzle rather than the chase. It’s an effective shift, one necessary to maintaining the integrity of Kimble’s character. Yes, Kimble is a smart man – probably smarter than his pursuers – but it is because of his mission that he puts himself at risk of capture.

The refocus on the murder also frees the movie from any sort of monotony with the extended cat-and-mouse between Gerard and Kimble. Indeed, the script feels well-balanced throughout. Following the iconic encounter at the dam that ends the first act (“I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care.”), we have a break in the chase, as Kimble returns to Chicago and formulates his plan, while the marshals move to capture the other fugitive from the escape. These scenes work to remind us of the characters’ underlying motivations, in the process contributing to their development.

Even without the physical presence of the marshals, Kimble’s predicament lends urgency to every scene. The drug sting and arrest of his landlady’s son is a heartpounding sequence that captures the walls seemingly caving in on Kimble – in the aftermath, Ford conveys this perfect mixture of relief and exhaustion and downright terror. The hospital sequence is no less tense, as we are reminded of the threat he faces even from a suspicious lab technician or a doctor. That he is making progress in his search for the one-armed man only underlines the stakes for our protagonist.

By the time we reach the end of the second act then, it seems almost an inevitability that the two sides will circle back on one another again. That the scene takes place in the wolf’s den – as Kimble visits a jail to see if an armed robber now behind bars is his one-armed man – only ratchets up the tension tenfold (there is a fantastic visual of Kimble shrinking in the back of an elevator filled with cops). This is a purposeful encounter for the narrative. Even if they cross paths purely by accident – with Gerard looking into the one-armed man himself – we are reminded of the precariousness of Kimble’s situation, the relentlessness of the man on his tail.

It is with the subsequent fall of the first big chess piece – when Kimble identifies Fredrick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas) as the one-armed man – that the movie shifts once more. The strands hinted at in the prologue, and pursued in the second act, start to come together as the movie barrels towards its conclusion. The separate worlds inhabited by the main characters merge almost fully now as Kimble clues the marshals in on his investigation (while necessarily keeping them at arm’s length). They’re not quite on the same side, but at least now they’re asking the same questions.

As Kimble and Gerard work individually to unravel the puzzle, Sykes comes to the forefront – dragging with him from the shadows the individuals who orchestrated the murder. The movie does this naturally, effectively: we have moved from the question of who killed Kimble’s wife to why Kimble’s wife was killed. And as Kimble finally pieces everything together, we do too, culminating in a series of onscreen showdowns. Kimble with the one-armed man, then with the mastermind, then with Gerard. It is an immensely satisfying finale.

There is not a wasted scene or line to be found in The Fugitive. Every thread comes back around, big and small. For instance, the push-and-pull over jurisdiction is a recurring theme, with the marshals clashing with local authorities from the outset (leading to Jones’ famous “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse” line). Thus, late in the movie, when Sykes’ murder of a cop is blamed on Kimble, there are consequences for the marshals too. “Chicago PD will eat him alive!” They’re chomping at the bit to kill a man that the marshals want captured. It adds another realistic dimension to the final confrontation.

Indeed, the film oozes of authenticity. Some of it is almost forgettable: the throwaway line that references prank calls from people pretending to be Kimble on the hotline, the internal monologue of a nurse as she attends to an elderly patient. There are small human moments: the old guard who saves himself from the bus-train crash and then tells a white lie about the circumstances of Kimble’s escape. Then there are the constants: the easy banter among the marshals that reveal their camaraderie, the doctor who cannot turn his back on the hippocratic oath even on the lam. All of it works in service of more fully-realized characters, of a more fully-realized world.

There are too many reasons why The Fugitive works as well as it does. The movie takes a situation already imbued with urgency and adds a mystery on top. It sets up the highest of stakes, with the truth encompassing not only vindication in the face of execution but vengeance as well. It paces itself, balancing its disparate elements and worlds, with three crescendos that find the main characters at very different places in their respective missions. It is rich in dialogue, and propelled further by the power of the performances. The Fugitive is as smart, thrilling, and fun a movie as you will ever see.

And it is utterly timeless.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is simultaneously the best Avengers movie and the worst Captain America movie. It seeks to reconcile the global, over-the-top scale of the former with the gritty, grounded nature of the latter – doing so with only marginal success. While the movie effectively continues the saga from The Winter Soldier, the inclusion of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe strips it of nuance and moral complexity (perhaps more inevitably, also the quaint, assured, and self-contained feel of The First Avenger). My highest compliment is the movie juggles everything about as well as it possibly can. I just wish it didn’t have to.

As in Batman v. Superman, the dilemma of Civil War concerns the consequences of superhero action. Yet, the script does no better than its DC counterpart in tackling the issue, or in making the titular conflict any less contrived.* The audience is asked – quite tediously at times – to consider a clearly flawed solution: The Sokovia Accords, which would essentially render the Avengers a UN peacekeeping mission. Problem is, there is no alternative presented. This isn’t oversight but castration, removing all initiative and free will from the Avengers. Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) choice to reject the proposal seems obvious, because it is.

*For whatever reason, one side withholds key information from the other

Further stripping the debate of its power is that the lack of stakes has always been a shortcoming of the Whedonverse. Previous movies have been quippy, lighthearted, popcorn fare, with an endless supply of redshirt robot villains, minimal human deaths, and no lingering aftereffects. Thus, when Civil War asks its characters to reconsider the fallout, there really isn’t any to speak of. I almost laughed when it was revealed that there were only about 300 civilian casualties stemming from the events in Manhattan, Washington D.C, and Sokovia.* Are you kidding me? This is negligible given the global catastrophes averted.

*Created presumably because Marvel doesn’t have the balls to kill even fictional citizens from a real country

Even the movie seems to realize the argument from the other perspective is weak, as it overlays Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) calls for oversight with a personal motivation linked intimately to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). This aspect is nicely handled in spots, particularly in the way their conflict folds both into the larger story about Bucky’s past and that of the mysterious villain pulling the strings. Still, this is also a storyline telegraphed from the beginning. The revelation that leads into the final fight feels almost like a chore because of how obvious it has been made to the audience.

Ultimately, that’s the fault of too many things going on in the movie. Every character and plotpoint is intertwined to prevent wasted screen-time; Chekhov’s gun sped up to the nth degree. The introduction, motivation, and origin of the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) are combined into one overly convenient scene; it might be digestible but it’s still a rush job. Exacerbating the issue is that the Russo brothers seem to insist all the characters deserve individual moments. This works well with some – Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes the heart of the movie, while Antman (Paul Rudd) steals his spare moments – but not so much others (sorry, Jeremy Renner and Paul Bethany).

The most egregious offender of this is the extended Spider-Man (Tom Holland) bit, truly the equivalent of Wonder Woman at a laptop. Admittedly, he’s great in action at the airport scene, but his presence fundamentally makes no sense. The movie doesn’t reveal how Stark learns his secret identity, doesn’t explain why he would seek out a 16 year-old for a war, doesn’t question the ethics of recruiting a child to likely death without informing his guardian. Peter Parker’s presence comes off as self-congratulatory for the MCU.* Honestly, how novel is it to see a character who has been in five standalone movies in the last 15 years?

*And enough with the unwatchable Stan Lee cameos. Jesus Christ.

Overall, Civil War is a bit all over the map. Everything featuring the Captain America characters – Rogers, Barnes, Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Carter (Emily vanCamp), Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) – work incredibly well: those plotlines feel real, affective, following directly from Winter Soldier. The introductory sequence is riveting, lending itself well to the Scarlet Witch-centered storyline. When the rest of the Avengers get brought into the picture however, the results are more mixed. Sure, the action sequences are high-flying. But everything is busier, messier, and painted in broader strokes. With that, the core of the movie becomes a little harder to hold onto.

Batman and Superman versus the Dawn of Justice

Batman v. Superman is a solid movie, oftentimes even a really good movie. At its core, it feels like Man of Steel 1.5. While it doesn’t make Man of Steel any better in hindsight, the much-discussed retcon actually works well in creating a foundation for this clash of the titans. Indeed, the first ten minutes is a revisiting of the Superman-Zod battle, only with real consequences. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) serves aptly as our window into a world in which Superman (Henry Cavill) appears, and we understand the concern, the fear (“the fever, the rage…”) that manifests in a much more jaded Batman onscreen than ever portrayed. That sequence sets up the themes for the most interesting aspects of Batman v. Superman.

Dawn of Justice, in contrast, is absolute garbage. The tone of the Justice League-themed aspects of the movie is inconsistent, yet unsubtle to the point of distraction. To plant the seeds for the presumable plot of the next installment, there is a dream sequence of the Flash in a time vortex, a scene disconnected from the entirety of the 2.5 hour movie that surrounds it. To reveal the Justice League roster, there is literally a three minute shot of a laptop showing Youtube-quality videos – both in terms of production value and acting ability. These are the equivalent of Thor’s magic pool sequence from Age of Ultron, the Red Skull disappearing into thin air part of The First Avenger, the unwatchable Nick Fury donut shop bullshit in Iron Man 2.

The problem is that the Dawn of Justice elements are not compartmentalized. They bleed deep into Batman v. Superman. Diana Prince’s (Gal Gadot) sporadic appearances stand as more distracting than essential, despite director Zack Snyder’s best efforts. What makes her character especially jarring is her own rockin’ theme song that accompanies every mention – the Jumanji drums would have been more subtle. Meanwhile, the character of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, in a Zuckerberg-like portrayal I enjoyed immensely) suffers hugely because he must also serve as a vessel for the eventual appearance of Darkseid. Luthor’s beef with Superman would have made for a much better parallel to Bruce Wayne’s without the Doomsday stuff.

Tantalizingly, so much of Batman v. Superman works. Like the better parts of its predecessor, the script creates a complex Superman, a Superman who makes choices and mistakes and questions his place in the world. Again, it’s Man of Steel 1.5. Moreover, because Zod and planetary genocide are off the table this time, Batman v. Superman is forced to confront all the gray areas that Man of Steel merely teased then summarily discarded. This is a Superman who the world has mixed feelings about, who some worship, others resent, and still others simply want to use. The script does well to focus on Batman, as his every conversation with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) projects these debates about the mercurial god-figure, underscoring Superman’s role as unknown quantity.

I found the first hour and a half enthralling: scenes moved with a sense of purpose, deftly managing and developing multiple characters and storylines, reminiscent of – dare I say – The Dark Knight. We have an introductory Lois (Amy Adams) sequence that establishes her tenacity while underscoring her central role in Superman’s life; indeed, it is his blind devotion to her revealed in that opening scene that plants the seeds for his undoing in this movie. We have Bruce Wayne’s building resentment, leading the billionaire to cross paths with Luthor, at the same time pushing his vigilante alter-ego to a brief but effective first encounter with Superman. We have the leadup to the committee hearings, and a stunning second act twist at the Capitol that should change everything.

Only, it doesn’t. The Justice League universe-building takes center stage. Everything then goes from 0-60 because the third act – inextricably linked to the next film – demands galactic stakes, far beyond the relatively grounded motivations that this movie has sought to establish up to that point. In the process, the sense of purpose the script demonstrated quickly devolves. It plows ahead almost blindly: carefully crafted storylines now intersect in clunky ways, character motivations are completely jumbled. Lex shifts from looking for a safeguard against Superman to bizarre (and nonsensical) genetic experimentation. Batman turns from suspicious detective to unrelenting psychopath. The titular battle somehow manages to come out of nowhere; the immediate situation contrived.

Even the actual, entertaining-as-hell fight between Batman and Superman – and the thrilling solo action sequence that follows (though that lacks proper motivation) – are overshadowed by an instantly-forgettable CGI slugfest that inserts Wonder Woman dead center and relegates Batman to the sidelines. It’s symbolic. We have Wonder Woman because the movie is ultimately a Justice League origin story. We have Doomsday because it needs a villain that warrants help from Wonder Woman. And we have huge leaps of logic that far outstrips Lex’s established motivations to get Doomsday. Indeed, following the Capitol events, the movie shifts from a very human story to a very non-human story, from Batman v. Superman to Dawn of Justice. I enjoyed it. I just wonder why Batman and Superman (and Lex) weren’t enough.

Godzilla

I was one of the few people who enjoyed Battle: Los Angeles, and one of the few who didn’t think much of Cloverfield. Setting aside their respective merits and faults, however, I appreciated the central conceit that drove both science-fiction thrillers. Battle: Los Angeles focused on a single squadron – introducing us to its members and loved ones – even as a full-scale alien invasion was underway around the world. Cloverfield tracked a small (and obnoxious) group of friends as they – along with the entire city – sought refuge against a terrifying alien monster. In both instances, the audience gets ‘a day in the life’ that is set against the end of the world.

By utilizing a similarly narrow narrative focus, this latest Godzilla transcends its blockbuster roots. This is a movie that doesn’t reveal its titular character until its second hour, that shows the aftermath of destruction as often as it shows the act itself, that literally closes the door to the audience as two monsters are about to engage hand-to-hand. These are brave choices. But they are effective ones. In it of itself, Godzilla raises both the anticipation and stakes for the third act, when the confrontations do come in spades. And in comparing the movie to its peers (Pacific Rim, Transformers, 1998’s Godzilla), this version offers a unique, more human experience.

The heart of Gareth Edwards’ vision lies in the Brody family: Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The family story is counteracted by Godzilla’s large scope, which – distinct from the aforementioned Battle: Los Angeles and Cloverfield – takes the story to multiple settings and across the Pacific Ocean. The story reconciles these opposing forces with a brief and effective prologue that not only serves to explain Joe’s fragility and desperation in the current day, but mitigates the contrivances that land Ford in Tokyo, Honolulu, and San Francisco for every pivotal scene of the monsters’ rampage. Even if the latter is not entirely successful, the Brodys do seem to exist and have a story independent of Godzilla.

In addition, the focus on the Brodys enhances the stature of the monsters that decorate the movie. Despite Ford’s skills and centrality to the plot, there is a certain aura of helplessness that pervades the movie. The human characters – including Joe and Ford – seek the truth. They contain. They follow. At no point are they in control: instead, the most they can do is minimize the inevitable damage. The doctor characters (Ken Watanabe as Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins as Vivienne Graham) are especially pivotal to this aspect of the story. This focus adds more weight to the movie, underscoring the sheer power of Godzilla and the MUTOs.

Yet, Godzilla is not a joyless endeavor. More levity would have lessened the stakes, hurt the film’s tone, and most of all – undermined the focus on the father-son relationship, a fatal move given the already tenuous hold Taylor-Johnson has in carrying the human aspects of the movie. Regardless, the build-up in the first hour feels anticipatory rather than dreary, and the action in the second hour – evocative of Man of Steel in its scale of destruction – manages to be altogether breathtaking. Set pieces on the Golden Gate Bridge and in the center of a mostly-evacuated San Francisco are memorable, with the reveal of Godzilla’s trademark atomic breath a true highlight.

The movie is not without its faults. There are the plot contrivances (Sam Brody being on the Golden Gate Bridge being the most egregious), the multiple fake-outs involving Godzilla’s death, and some problematic acting (as mentioned, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t acquit himself well, and David Strathairn is strangely lifeless as a U.S. Admiral). The story also does the audience a great disservice by skipping over the fact that a major section of Tokyo has become a quarantined, I am Legend-like wasteland, squandering a great setup in the prologue and first act basically so we can get to the pretty white people quicker.* But this aspect of the movie is a somewhat understandable victim of Godzilla’s narrow focus.

*To be fair, Elizabeth Olsen IS really pretty.

Overall though, I greatly enjoyed Godzilla. This is an end of the world movie that truly feels like the end of the world. It conveys a sense of urgency by paradoxically having much of the action take place in the background, even offscreen. It conveys scope by having humans not as the drivers of action, but as mostly standing on the sidelines, doing what little they can – if not being completely helpless. Strangely, the latest reboot to the franchise feels like a true original. “Let them fight.” They do.