Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday Movie Madness! ALL-STAR SUPERMAN & DEMONS

I think it's general consensus that Superman is the most well-regarded of the big-time superheroes- hell, even Jerry Seinfeld loves him - even if he is, admittedly, in a goofy kind of universe.  His world is the stuff of science fiction being that, yes, he's an alien from the planet Krypton, and he puts on his facade of Clark Kent, and then fights bigger and badder aliens and robots and of course a megalomaniac with a bald head.   All-Star Superman's strength is to not make the proud and high and mighty too high and mighty and revered like, say, the Bryan Singer 2006 Superman revamp.  Based off of what is also considered THE Superman comic of the past decade by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly, it takes the character dead seriously but doesn't forget the campiness of the world that he inhabits and protects.

It's knowing of how silly sometimes this all is, and yet it doesn't detract from it being less than entertaining or touching.  And there's humor throughout a story that should be really sad: after Superman stops an imminent threat of a spaceship going into the sun, he gets too close and is told that his cell structure will be breaking down due to the solar radiation... and he'll die(!)  Superman is philosophical about all this (and hey, why not, if he can come back after Doomsday he can come back from... well, maybe not this), and decides to get some of his affairs in order: chiefly that of Lois Lane, who doesn't know Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same.  How she finds out should be kind of obvious (take off the shirt, and there's the S), but the revelation doesn't hit her so hard.  That is until it dawns on her: he's been *lying* to me for years!  Or, you know, her not asking about it and him not saying anything, semantic argument, but I digress.

Even his diary-writing entries are bad-ass

But along with this with Lois, which ends up with her at the fortress of solitude and finding out more about Superman than she knew before, there's also the conflict with Lex Luthor.  He's arrested following another one of his plots and is put behind bars awaiting execution, but plans to break out come full-force after he finds out about a certain formula that Superman made that can give someone Super-strength (even Lois, who takes it herself for part of the film) for 24 hours.  How Superman reconciles this unfortunate development, and an unexpected visit from some nasty ex-Kryptonians who scoff at the "El's" and Superman especially, while Superman gets weaker, makes up the dramatic obstacles for the character.  And Superman being Superman he takes everything as it comes, despite being super-fast and with "down-time" at the Fortress of Solitude being relative, and of course there's the thing with the Sun.

An example of what I mean about the goofy side mixing in with the sincere comes from a development that happens midway through the movie: Lois and Superman are having a semi-romantic night, but it gets interrupted by first uninvited guest time travelers who act like 14-year olds in muscles and spandex trying to vie for Lois' affections, and secondly for reptile-monsters from the Earth's core (and Superman actually apologizes in acknowledgment of them being reptiles from the Earth's core).  It is silly, but shouldn't Superman be silly too?  Morrison and the makers of this film look on Superman as being indebted to the time it came from - dopey serials in print form and from the cartoon serials from the 1940's - but that he still has a place in the world of comics because of what he represents: a kind of God who comes to Earth, is not exactly half human but knows where humans are coming from and how they can love as well as hate, and is on top of things all over just by his genetic make-up.  If you gotta have a God, might as well be Superman.

Helloooo Lois!

Even more surprising is how wonderful Lex Luthor is written here, as a character who, of course being Luthor, wants to take over the world and mess things up, and when he's not working on his robots to try and kill Superman he has his next diabolical plot with the serum he takes to try and *be* Superman.  All of this should be typical Luthor stuff, but is given some umph with some fantastic dialog, and a sequence where Clark Kent is 'interviewing' Luthor behind bars, and then ironically has to save him when a monster breaks out of a prison cell (a big purply monster thing with a gigantic mouth) and has to save Luthor and (some) prisoners as it wreaks havoc everywhere in the jailhouse walls.  But where Luthor winds up near the end of the story, as he has his Super-Powers and Superman is at his weakest... he has a breakthrough, and realizes that he could have done more to save the world instead, as the powers given him show what Superman sees: everything is connected, and one can see everything that's happening, and hence in trouble, at the same time.

It's a deep revelation in a story that earns deepness from its stories and characters, and morality is always put to the test for Superman and he passes just by the skin of his teeth.  It's who he is, an alien-but-a-man-sorta who fights for those he cares about and the rest of the world not because he can but because he should and feels such responsibility as to make one final heroic act near the end (only made a little less dramatic by what Lois thinks he's really doing where he's at near the end).

And yet on top of what goes on on Earth, Morrison and director Sam Liu ups the stakes beautifully with a big-bad confrontation (and in white spandex no less! and with robots!) to fight a machine-sun in space that made a pact with Luthor.  It's one of those action sequences that is rousing and exciting and with just enough dialog to keep things humming along to the great animation on display.  It's moments like this and more in All-Star Superman, a top-tier DC Animated feature, than do more than remind me why I do, if only periodically, really like Superman: I feel like seeking out more and more of the comics to dig in to when he works as well as he does in the right hands. 

Why is another matter, as we move along to the next movie....


Demons marks as a slightly more 'meta' project for Italian horror-meister Dario Argento, who produced and co-wrote this film with director Lamberto Bava (son of Mario), as it mostly takes place in a movie theater showing a horror movie that patrons go to see by way of a free invitation.  But unlike, say, an invite to a free test screening, this is for just a run-of-the-mill teens-go-into-a-crypt-and-die-one-by-one flick... until one woman who gets scratched by a mask that she wears in the lobby of the theater turns her into a demon, and from there more demons are made and spring to un-dead action against the attendees at the theater.  Some may last longer than others, such as the always durable-but-soon-to-due black dude (this one bald but with bad-ass sideburns) and a blind guy who gets his eyes gouged out by the demons.  IRONY!

The filmmakers relish in conventions of horror but don't miss any opportunity to go into the muck of it either, and always with fun and practical special effects.  Maybe I'm a little spoiled by time, but seeing such wicked make-up and gooey and 'eww' effects with these demons- and, naturally for an Italian horror film, over the top stylized violence (if nowhere near an Argento-directed or Mario Bava picture)- brought a smile to my face.  I liked seeing all of this mayhem ensue, often through characters doing stupid things.

Ex-Nickelodeon contestant, specifically Double-Dare
How stupid?  At one point after the theater patrons realize that there's no way out of the theater after being locked in with lots of concrete wedged into the doorways they go back into the main auditorium.  They pull a zombie-movie deal and barricade themselves inside, without really paying mind to going outside again... until they remove ALL of the barricaded material due to, um, I guess the threat being gone for the moment or demons coming from another side.  Oh, and they think it's the movie doing the demonic possession thing and spend ten minutes of the movie going to destroy the film, which would be nice if it was that infamous Are You Afraid of the Dark episode where the monster comes out of the screen.

To be sure there are moments like that in the film- such as those with a bunch of real 80's coke-metal heads (and you know they are as they snort their coke from their Coca-Cola cans to Billy Idol's "White Wedding" blaring in the car as they drive past neon-lit buildings at night)- that do feel superfluous to the plot.  But really, once the story gets rolling after its strong initial set-up, it's mostly an excuse to have people running and then being caught in the grip of Demon-Zombie fervor.  A guy riding on a motorcycle in the climax with a samurai sword (no, it's not as crazy as you think, the sword came from a statue holding it in the lobby of the theater) should be crazy horror-comedy, and it is, but it's also bad-ass horror stuff.  The makers of this movie don't make things too messy, and only near the climax does it get godDAMN ridiculous with the appearance of a helicopter.  How did it get there?  Um... you tell me.

Demons isn't too deep an entertainment.  Just watch with your buddies, recognize how much it is a rip-off of Evil Dead 1 (made in 1983, this came out in 1985) in how it deals with the undead demons, and it's meant to appeal to hardcore GORY Horror-geeks.  It's characters are mostly jerks or idiots save for the main lead couple, and there's only so much time to get to know anyone anyway, so it's best to watch it as pure B-movie-ness with over the top dialog and an ending that's made purely to go "AHAHA!" and be on your way.  You want splatter, dismemberment, and just a few solid hints at self-referential humor, look no further.  For the squeamish, stick with... well, definitely not this.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Googolplex Gulag with HANNA and WIN WIN

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, we're so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside....

And this week we have two blonde haired 16 year olds who find this moment in their lives being... full of WTF (not to put down the films, they're good, read on):

Hanna only knows what her father tells her, and what he tells her should be plenty.  Maybe it is; growing up in the woods of the Arctic with her father, she knows what he reads from an encyclopedia and from a book of fairy tales - plus being a kick-ass machine.  And not in the degree of 'Hit Girl' from the movie Kick-Ass.  This is, within its own dimensions, something a little more believable once we learn more about Hanna's real state of being: she's not exactly *real* like other people, but rather created in a lab as a super soldier (one of many, you should try to pay it little mind why this program totally stopped).  So when Hanna's father, Erik Heller, sets off the switch to send the beacon to the agency where Marissa Ziegler works at, the plan is implemented and shit's on.

In a sense the film Hanna, a refreshing change of pace for previous stolid-dramatic director Joe Wright (of Atonement and the turgid The Soloist), is as much of a story of Hanna 'coming of age' and becoming aware of what is the world around her, as it is a story of a young girl kicking anyone's butt who gets in her way (by 'butt' I mean like brutally maiming and/or killing).  She's kind of like a wild child in the way that 'wild children' are left out of civilization, only instead of being primitive without guidance her guidance is a kind of brutal and calculating spy (Eric Bana), and that she has another character (Cate Blanchett) coming after her so doggedly, almost like an evil stepmother out of a fairy tale... oh yeah, there's that symbolism too, and I'll get to that in a moment.

What I mean by refreshing is that Wright shows off his skills at directing action, and damn intense and impressively 'artful' action.  By that I should mean that Wright is a director who cares about his shots and how he frames things; this is something that I could tell even during the weakest parts of Soloist, and conversely the strongest sections of Atonement.  Here he leads along action set pieces, like when Hanna has to escape from an underground mega-bunker from the agents with style and speed (this is something that leads around like a maze, but you never feel lost, the editing is fast but it never lets up from being quick enough to keep you along, like Scorsese ala The Departed in that way).  Or he'll try for something ambitious like a long (that is to say something like five minute) stedicam tracking shot of Eric Bana being followed by shady characters, leading to an underground garage that doesn't cut and move away to an angle that seems unnatural as he takes motherfuckers out.  It's not quite Oldboy, but it'll certainly do in this age of quick cutting and unnecessary hand-held in action set pieces.

Wright is so strong with the direction that it pulls everything along with it - not to mention the performances.  So far Saorise Ronan has been an actress wonderful in the background- as supporting in Wright's previous Oscar winner- or in a film that was a miss (Lovely Bones) where she tried her best but was lost.  Here she's in total command, with those striking blue eyes that go a long way (aside from, you know, basic talent and real conviction even when she's seemingly cold), and plays off of actors like the Australian family that almost becomes her surrogate family (by chance) with perfect timing and unusual grace.

She's had a string of movies that have made her 'oh, that girl!' in movies, but with Hanna one can only hope her time has come as a star.  Eric Bana, too, has a wonderful character here as a man with real conflict about what he's doing, and we feel sympathy for him despite being deceptive from the start (though not all on purpose, Marie Ziegler caused it really, but not to spoil much).  And Cate Blanchett is... Cate Blanchett, what else do I need to say about her!

Think my performance in The Aviator was overrated now, do you?

The film is stylish when it comes to its cinematography and definitely it's music - it becomes so catchy that it's villain-scum characters hum and whistle the music, which is blended in with where they work at a weird-ass club - and when it comes to symbolism the movie isn't subtle, but because it's so head-on it's charming and alarming in its sincerity (simply put, just look at the climax and where characters are placed as they face off).  But the real heart and strength comes with this character and how she comes into her own in this world.  And some of it is surprising for her just in the simple but potent shock of modernity.  She finds her first shelter after escaping in an Arab store's backroom, where the shopkeep puts on the TV and puts a kettle of tea for her.  She's transfixed by a TV, and how could she not, it being her first TV ever?

Then something happens... the tea kettle thing goes all haywire, she tries to flip switches for lights and fans turn on.  The TV turns to images of guns firing and war, she trips in the shower and that turns on, it becomes, all in all, auditory chaos in imagery and the taken-for-granted facts of electricity and TV.  How can she go on in the real world once this all ends?  Who knows.  I felt a little disappointed near the very end - is there a denouemont, I might have missed it, or it wasn't there at all - yet maybe it is fitting; Hanna will just have to go on with trying to make some sense of the rest of the world, and the simple act of being 'human'.  It's Pinocchio for the Bourne crowd, but with a director who is "old-school" in a 20th century sense... albeit with the Chemical brothers on soundtrack.  Go see it.


Win Win is a movie about a man taking responsibility (or maybe paying penance in his way) for being something of a minor ganiff (or, Yiddish for 'thief') with an old man with dementia who doesn't have anyone to take care of him.  That is until his grandson, Kyle, comes to town following a major problem with his drug addict mom.  As luck would have it, Kyle is a keen and rather instinctual-awesome wrestler, and further luck Mike (Paul Giamatti) is a wrestling coach part-time for a high school and so he takes Kyle on as his star player.  But as luck would not have it, his mother (Melanie Lyskey in a surprising performance- in that she makes the character more sympathetic than one might think, sorta) comes back to town once she's clean to take 'care' of her father and her son.  Will Mike have it?  What about his fuck-up from earlier in the film?

FOLGERS, at every wrestling event since 1955

The story comes from Thomas McCarthy, who with this being his third film comes from a run of doing work like The Station Agent and The Visitor that are about people just trying to be kind and care and so the right thing in a world where people don't give a shit and move along to their own drums.  His approach kind of straddles between being a sitcom - there's a character in this film played by Bobby Cannavale who plays a true Jersey caricature (like a grown-up Jersey Shore guy, only funnier on purpose) - and a quirky independent film where you have the character Kyle played by Alex Shaffer (pretty good as long as he's keeping things subtle and straightforward and not loud) coming close to being that sacred object that is kind of funny, kind of sad, and just kind of weird all the time.

McCarthy is able to juggle most of these elements with care and attention to character throughout the film, though Win Win gets its best marks when it focuses on the drama and conflict that Mike has with this decision he made in court with his elderly client (and Paulie from Rocky no less!) than it does with the wrestling.  It's entertaining to watch, most notably with a supporting character teenage dweeb who has to run around to get by in a match, but it never had a moment where it really blew me away with what was going on.  It was amiable and likable work, but couldn't hold a candle to seeing actors like Giamatti and Amy Ryan having really strong work with the likes of Burt Young and Lysnkey.

And, wait, which one is waiting to see the principal?

The movie never bores, and always has charm to spare... and once or twice can be a little annoying (really movie, really, going from a little chit-chat dialog about a tattoo for Jon Bon Jovi, and then a whole montage put to a crappy Bon Jovi song just cause, I dunno, it NJ power?  I'm from Jersey, that's not power, it's water torture).  It also comes down to how much you like seeing Giamatti doing his thing as an everyman leading-man who deals with the kind of things we all deal with everyday: how to pay the bills, how to keep the kids happy, and how to try and grow as a person even in middle age.  It gives enough dramatic 'umph' to justify its existence, deals with issues that are hard to deal with like abuse and neglect and earning trust with some unlikely humor, and left me happy.  Though unlike McCarthy's previous films it didn't quite resonate as strongly due to some of the weaker parts with the wrestling and a denouement that is okay but just makes the movie feel like "we need an ending, here it, um, is."