Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Kings of Summer

The premise of The Kings of Summer is a fantasy I suspect a lot of people have entertained at some point in their lives, namely the idea of running off to live in the woods. Whether it's to break away from civilization, or to prove to yourself that you could truly rough it, it's a fun idea to entertain, and The Kings of Summer crafts a fun movie out of it.

The film is about three high school students named Joe, Patrick and Biaggio who decide they want to run away and build a house in the forest. It starts when Joe, unable to put up with his widowed father, runs out one night to go to a party with friends. On the way home, he gets lost and comes across a clearing in the woods. He goes back with his friends, and pitches them the idea of living there. At first they pass it off as just a fun idea, but then decide they want to do it for real.

The Kings of Summer does a great job of balancing out its characters. On the one hand, you get why the boys decide to run away. To them, their parents are unbearable to be around. For example, Joe is constantly butting heads with his dad, who comes off as gruff and over-intrusive. On the other hand, the film doesn't try to vilify the parents, it just makes them the sort of parents a teenager would want to rebel against.

Something about this film reminded me of the movie Adventureland, and I think it's that both build upon the idea of having a truly memorable summer, without feeling as if the filmmakers are being nostalgic for their own youth. Kings of Summer is a fun story that does a great job of building upon its premise. Yes, there are bits of drama in the story, (after all, it is a film about kids running away from home,) but overall its a lighthearted, fun, escapist comedy. It's the perfect movie for a warm summer night, or alternatively, a freezing cold night in the dead of winter when you want to watch something to remind you what the warm summer sun feels like.

There were two stand out performances in this movie. First, there's Nick Offerman as Frank, Joe's dad. Okay, I'm guessing I already lost a few of you at the mention of Nick Offerman's name, as you likely just left to check showtimes to see when this movie is playing next. For the rest of you, Offerman does some well balanced acting. I haven't actually watched him on Parks and Recreation, but I know his character on that show has earned him a pretty big following, and from this movie, I can see why. He delivers some hilariously deadpan insults to the other characters, especially at one of the cops who's trying to find his son. However, despite how intolerable he is to the other characters, you still end up feeling sympathy for him.

The other great performance was by Moises Arias, who plays Biaggio, the third kid in the trio. His character is the kid everybody knew in high school that just lurks about, and seems incapable of doing or saying anything that doesn't come off as completely weird. (I suspect some people I went to high school with might accuse me of being that guy, but lets move on, shall we?) I don't think I've seen somebody do as good a job at stealing every scene he's in since McLovin in Superbad. Biaggio does everything with an insane level of intensity, while at the same time being somewhat absurdly dressed in about every scene. I'm sure we're going to see a lot more of all three of the actors who play the boys in this movie, but I think this movie will be a breakout film for Arias.

So far, Kings of Summer has been among the best movies I've seen this summer. It's been a while since we've seen a movie become a true sleeper hit, jumping from the indie cinemas and working its way up the box office rankings, and it would be awesome if a movie like this pulled it off. I think the only reason this didn't get a wider initial release was because it was the debut film for both the director and writer. However, it's such a polished film, you wouldn't know it. We'll hopefully be seeing more from them in the future.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

I know this is obvious to a lot of you reading this, but I'm just going to put out these three points anyway because I'm always surprised how many times I hear people pass up a good movie, like Mission Impossible: III or X-Men: First Class, based solely on bad incarnations that came before it.

1. This is not a sequel to the Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh Superman movies.
2. This is a complete reboot of the franchise in a vein similar to Batman Begins.
3. It's the best damn Superman movie made yet.

One of the problems that I think has always plagued writers of Superman it's too easy to lose focus of the character. The character has been around for 75 years, so naturally he's built up several interpretations and lots of backstory, not to mention an increasingly weird and over-the-top array of powers. What Superman has needed for years is a story that builds upon the most central aspects of the character, while not being afraid to jettison the rest.

Batman, a character that has been around for 74 years, was fortunate enough to get such character treatments in Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, which later inspired Batman Begins. These stories whittled away the most excessive and absurd parts of his character and built a story around the character at the core of them all. In those instances, it was a story of a man who turns into a vigilante when faced with a corrupt police force and a city overrun with crime.

Man of Steel gives a similar treatment to Superman, building a story around the idea of a hero that is really an alien from a dying world. As a result, Man of Steel becomes a tale of first contact with extraterrestrial life.

The way the film focuses on Superman as being an alien feels like a fresh approach, even though it's been touched upon before in other versions. It builds upon the idea of what it must feel to be the only one of your kind. For example, when he first develops his X-ray vision, it leaves him cowering in a school closet. Instead of being the All-American golden boy most versions depict him as, Man of Steel has the American government suspicious of him, only because he is not of this world. Perhaps most surprisingly, instead of emulating Uncle Ben's speech from Spider-Man about "with great power comes great responsibility," Jonathan Kent tells young Clark something to the effect of, "With great power, you should keep your head down, or people will come looking for you."

As played by Henry Cavill, this version of Superman is actually reluctant to use his powers, not only because he risks exposing his identity, but also because he understands how devastating they can be when used. The end result is that we get a Superman with more depth to his character than I think we've really seen in any version.

However, the changes made to Superman's character are nothing compared to this version's Lois Lane. Finally, we get a version of Lois that doesn't just tell us she's an intrepid reporter, it actually shows us. Amy Adams's Lois Lane feels inspired by real-life NBC reporter Richard Engel. She's comfortable in the field, even in the face of danger, and we actually get to see the lengths she goes to get her stories. There's still a feeling of romantic chemistry between her and Superman, but her character feels more like Superman's heroic human counterpart, rather than just his girlfriend.

And you'll have to forgive me for spoiling this one minor plot detail, (it happens early in the film anyway,) but I really want to applaud the filmmakers for doing away with the one element of her character that never made any sense. For years fans have always wondered why if Lois is such an ace reporter, how is she unable to tell that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person? In this version, she not only knows his secret identity, she finds out his secret life before he even dons the Superman costume.

I was hesitant about the decision to use General Zod as the villain. With so many unused Superman villains, it seemed like a lazy move to go for one already featured so notably in Superman II. In fact, using Zod almost necessitates that a film with him in it be somewhat of a remake of Superman II. Well, I know a lot of people were fans of Superman II, but I hate to break it to you, Man of Steel takes the major story elements from that movie and does it so much better. Zod is no longer a scene chewing generic dictator. Michael Shannon portrays him as a cunning, manipulative and terrifying general bent on doing what he thinks he must to ensure the survival of the Kryptonian race. And through his second in command, Faora-Ul, we get a glimpse of what Superman would be like if he truly acted uninhibited. Hell, at times, she comes off as scarier than Zod.

While we're at it, Russel Crowe's portrayal of Jor-El, Superman's birth father, is the best incarnation of that character I think I've seen. He comes off as genuine and compassionate, and definitely has some of the best moments in the film. Again, I hate to anger the fans of the Christopher Reeve-era Superman films, but after you see Crowe play Jor-El, you'll find yourself wondering why anybody ever got excited about Marlon Brando in the role. Brando merely made a cameo appearance when he stepped into the role. Crowe owns it.

It should come as no surprise that since Man of Steel was intended to build off of the success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, the tone of this movie is more serious than previous incarnations. Don't get me wrong, it's still a fun movie, but there's a high level of drama in the story.

Drama and destruction... Lots of destruction... The filmmakers definitely decided that when super powered beings get into a fight on earth, it should be the kind of fight that levels cities. Towards the end of the movie, there's a slew of buildings crumbling and explosions all over the place, and yet it never comes off feeling like Roland Emmerich-style disaster porn.

Speaking of directors with distinctive styles, I was also a bit worried about how much of his personal style Zack Snyder was going to put into this movie. The movies he made between 300 and Sucker Punch were filled with scenes of slow-mo action mixed with super-fast cuts of action, all shot with smoothly controlled stedi-cams. (Actually, I can't say for sure that's true of all of the movies he made during this period because, amazingly enough, I have still not seen Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.)

For Man of Steel, Snyder opted instead to emulate Christopher Nolan's visual style from The Dark Knight Trilogy, with a bit of Snyder's own style from Dawn of the Dead thrown in. Expect lots of shaky hand held camera shots, especially in the early scenes. I'm not saying that's a bad thing though. In fact it makes Man of Steel as if it's part of the same universe as Nolan's Batman films, in the same way The Avengers movies all shared a same visual feel. Not that I'm implying Man of Steel feels like it's going to pave the way for a Justice League movie, either. I'm just saying they complement each other nicely.

One thing that did irk me about this movie was the science involved. In an attempt to further emphasize the "realistic" feel of this movie, the filmmakers tried to give a more scientific sounding explanation for Superman's powers. However, I think they went overboard. Instead of just saying he has powers from radiation from Earth's yellow sun and leaving it at that, they go on to suggest other things affect his powers too, like the nutrient rich nature of Earth's atmosphere. It's a plot point that gets exploited a few times, but feels more like a distraction than a welcome addition to the canon.

Overall, Man of Steel is the reboot that the Superman character, not just the movies, has needed for some time now. This is the movie we were all expecting to get back in 2006 when Bryan Singer made Superman Returns, (which, while disappointing, still isn't as bad a movie as everybody makes it out to be.) This is the kind of movie that can get people who don't read comics to ask their nerdy friends what Superman graphic novels they should go out and buy. (Sad news guys, there aren't as many great ones compared to Batman.)

This a movie I want to see turned into a franchise. I want to see more of what familiar characters are like in this interpretation. I want to see Henry Cavill's Superman take on Lex Luthor, and Braniac, and Metallo, and Parasite, and Dark Seid. (I doubt they'll do Bizzaro, but I'm going to keep my hopes up.) I just ask that they let this franchise continue indefinitely, instead of turning it into a closed ended trilogy with a movie like The Dark Knight Rises.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Ordinarily, I do my best to avoid spoilers in reviews, but lets be honest here. We've all read The Great Gatsby. Either you read it in high school, or you read it later in life because you knew it was one of those books that everybody should read. In the event you're one of those few people who haven't read the book yet, I'm not going to go so far as to tell you to not see the movie until you read the book. I am, however, going to insist that whether or not you like the movie that you still pick up the book.

The Great Gatsby is unmistakably a film by Baz Luhrmann. That means certain things are almost guaranteed. Regardless of what era the film is set in, the music will be contemporary, (the exception being his film Australia.) It will be at times brash, and fast paced. Most of all, it will be a story about love. 

Baz actually structures his adaptation of Gatsby similar to how he did Moulin Rouge. Both films open with a narrator, distraught over the events that transpired during the story. Here, it's Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire. As a way to deal with what happened, he turns to writing. We get a brief introduction to the time and the place of the story before being launched into a wild and fervent party scene, filled with rapid cuts that jump from moment to moment, in this film it's Gatsby's house party. Then it finally settles down into the main romance story. 

I want to emphasize that the pace of the story does slow down after the beginning. I know several people who walked out of Moulin Rouge because they couldn't handle the frenetic pace of the opening scenes, and I imagine the same will apply to Gatsby.

Once Gatsby is introduced, and the stage is set, I suspect this is where some people may have issues with the story. For a novel that's less than 200 pages, Fitzgerald wrote an extremely deep and multilayered story. As such, there's plenty of room for debate about what is central and what is incidental to the plot. After watching the film, my friends and I got into a debate about whether Gatsby was written as a commentary on the lifestyles of the Roaring 20's, told in the structure of a love story, or if it was a love story that was incidentally meant as a commentary on the 1920's lifestyle. 

It should come as no surprise that Baz opted to film it as a love story, with the social commentary on the side. His films are all about characters falling in love, against all odds, with them winding up in some combination of living and/or dead by the end. Regardless of how you interpreted the novel, I think Baz's interpretation works well for the silver screen. You buy into Gatsby's lifestyle easily. The parties. The fancy cars. The champagne. (The rap music?) Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby in such a way that not only is he a guy who feels he gets what he wants, you feel he deserves what he wants. So when things inevitably start crashing down around him, you start to see the shallowness of the 1920's lifestyle for what it really is. 

Even if you think Baz wrongly emphasizes the film's romance, there is one thing you cannot deny he got right, and that is the look of the film. Fitzgerald used extremely stylish and vivid prose to describe Gatsby's world, so that anybody reading the novel could easily picture the green light on the dock, the windshield of Gatsby's car, and of course the watchful eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. Baz faithfully translates the Fitzgerald's prose into bright and energetic visuals. When you see everything from the parties to the Valley of Ashes onscreen, it feels as if that's the way you always pictured the settings in your mind, long before you saw a frame of footage for this film.

I am also going to defend his use of anachronistic music for the film. The thing with period appropriate jazz music is that current generations are accustomed to associate it with being a more recent type of classical music. It's what you hear on NPR late on saturday night. Sure, Baz could have played 1920's jazz music for the party scenes, and it would have conveyed that people were having a fun time. But by playing dance tracks and rap music, he did a better job of showing on what was really going on back then. People weren't having a good time. They were having an out-fucking-rageous time.

As a Baz Lurhmann fan, Gatsby is definitely on par with his other films. It mixes being fun and emotional in the way films like Moulin Rouge, or Strictly Ballroom do. (On a side note, if you've never seen Strictly Ballroom, it's on Netflix Instant. Watch it.) The acting, the visuals, and the script and come togther in a way that's highly theatrical and extremely engaging. As for non-Baz Luhrmann fans, well the two people I went to see it with actually watched it with the expectation that it was going to be a train wreck, and said they enjoyed it more than they thought they were going to, so make of that what you will.

One more thing. I've been fairly vocal about how for the most part I'm against 3D movies, with a few exceptions for when it's done well and adds something to the story. Gatsby was a film I intended to make an exception for. The last time I watched Moulin Rouge, I thought it practically felt like a 3D movie, without the glasses on, so I was eager to see how Baz would handle making an actual 3D movie. Unfortunately, the AMC at Newport on the Levee saw fit to botch things up as much as possible. For some reason, they opted not to offer a 3D showing at a time around the 7-8pm block when most people see movies. On top of that, they crammed us in one of the smallest auditoriums in the theatre, as if unaware that this was a major hollywood release. (And the movie started 20 minutes late, but we got free passess for that, so I'm not going to complain about that point.) So, alas, the one time I wanted to see a movie in 3D was the one time there wasn't a convenient showing for it. Should I find the time to catch a 3D showing of this, I'll let you know what I think.