Easy A

Easy A (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Will Gluck
viewed: 06/25/2011

Channeling hard on the John Hughes teen films of the 1980’s, Easy A attempts to encapsulate the high school experience in an arch and clever patter for the modern teen audience.  Director Will Gluck rapidly but very reverently nods his head at Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Say Anything… (1989), via the 17 year old protagonist of his own film, yearning wistfully for the romance of those bygone times…unironically, I might add.

Easy A is “The Scarlet Letter” in high school.  Sort of.  In a sort of pop post-modern fashion.

Emma Stone plays Olive Penderghast, the modern day Hester Prynne (of sorts), who is overheard telling to her best friend about a wild weekend fling she had (though it’s a fabrication), and quickly gets a reputation as a slut.  When a gay friend of hers asks her to pretend to have sex with him at a party in order to give him a cover for his orientation, her faux sexual reputation grows, gaining her more and more would-be Romeos “buying” a chance to say that they also slept with her.  She becomes a fake prostitute.

We get this whole story told to us by Olive herself, webcasting to the world, the true story, told with her amazingly urbane and clever commentary, which I found a little too amazingly urbane and clever to imagine a 17 year old spouting it.  How many teenagers will make a joking reference to the Kinsey Sicks?  I dare you to find one teenager who has heard of the Kinsey Sicks, much less reference them in a joke to another teenager who gets it.

There are hundreds of false notes throughout the film.  Her parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, are equally urbane and over-the-top-ly loving and witty, in a schmoozey tone of utter overkill.  And really, if anything, it’s the writing, the dialogue, plugged full of oh-so-clever bon mots like everyone just oozes a contemporary Oscar Wilde vibe.

The irony, in this post-modern-ish teen comedy, is how it yearns for the soppy sincerity of those 1980’s teen comedies, yet remains itself so arch and referential that it drums up none of that quality of reaction or emotional connection.  Emma Stone is good in the film, more or less.  But its ludicrous script doesn’t do anyone any favors.

The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Michel Gondry
viewed: 06/24/2011

Misguided and broadly vacant, Michel Gondry-directed, Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg-penned superhero movie of The Green Hornet is a bomb.  Rogan, who also stars as Britt Reid (a.k.a., the Green Hornet), had written the much more successful Superbad(2007) with Goldberg, but this jab at genre comic adventure lands with multiple thuds and many swings and misses, with nary a connection throughout.  And Gondry, who has achieved quality in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) but whose track record is much more typically spotty (Human Nature (2001), The Science of Sleep (2006), Be Kind Rewind (2008)), brings verve to some visual sequences but flails miserably at the comedy.  It’s a mess.

Rogan’s Green Hornet is a typical Rogan character as the Green Hornet, a good-natured dude who parties and is really much more of a schlub than a hero.  Jay Chou, who picks up the role of side-kick Kato from the 1960’s television version of The Green Hornet from Bruce Lee, is the super-smart, super-talented, super-kick-ass real hero of the story, though for the film, he is the nameless sidekick.  It’s a modernization/bastardization of the story, played for comedy but is utterly half-assed in its conception.

Rogan’s bromance relationship swings from non-touchy-feely brotherhood to competition and rivalry between the two for their vigilante/heroism and the charms of Cameron Diaz, who has a nominal role in this broadly undefined piece of junk.

Frankly, it’s not worth babbling on about.  Gondry does manage some nice visuals in some of the fight sequences, some over-the-top elements of implied perception.  Kato is able to slow the whole world around him and move extra-fast to punch, kick, and swoop all over the place and the film’s only highlights are some of these clever but disposable sequences.

I did watch it with the kids.  Felix was interested in it.  Clara was extremely bored by it.  Nobody was impressed.  Clara did note the frequency of the use of “the S word” and it was interesting to pay attention to the language of the script that was written to be funny and portray character boiled down to a propensity for “shit”.

Lame.

The Muppets Take Manhattan

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) movie poster

(1984) director Frank Oz
viewed: o6/19/2011 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Ah, the Muppets.  I was recalling to the kids how ridiculously funny I found the original The Muppet Movie in 1979, when I was 10 years old.  I remember laughing until tears came out.  And I had been a big fan of The Muppet Show itself.  When I saw that The Muppets Take Manhattan was playing at the Castro Theatre, I thought it would be a cool one to see.  Oddly, it was playing as part of the Frameline Film Festival, the LGBT film festival, though I didn’t really get the connection.  No matter.

I actually had seen some portion of this movie on cable back in the 1980’s, much later than its original release.  As much as I loved the original The Muppet Movie, I don’t think I ever saw another of the films in the cinema.  But I did recall thinking that there were some really funny parts, in particular, when Kermit loses his memory and winds up in a Madison Avenue advertising agency with a trio of bland, average, imagination-challenged frogs, who think he’s a genius when he suggests advertising straightforwardly, “Use X Soap.  It gets you clean.”  And sales go through the roof.

Really, that’s kind of how it goes in this film, eternally cheerful, wistful and fun, with spurts of quite amusing moments.  Not exactly a laugh riot or a pure classic, but a charming and joyful adventure with the original voice cast of the Muppets (this was the final film produced before Jim Henson’s untimely death).

The film opens was the Muppets are putting on a college revue as they graduate from university.  Their show, “Manhattan Melodies” to Manhattan, to Broadway.  While the whole gang is on-board, they are true rubes in the city, not at all ready for the realities of the business and when their show fails to get picked up, they split up and head their separate ways.

A number of celebrity cameos, including Art Carney, Elliot Gould, Gregory Hines, Liza Minnelli, Joan Rivers, Dabney Coleman and a spate of others add to the fun, but also offers a glimpse into the time that has passed since this film.  A lot of them are no longer with us.

The kids had seen it before, and while they did seem to enjoy it, it didn’t make a particular impression.  Much of the children in the audience were of a younger set.

The film’s biggest crime is that it introduced “the Muppet Babies”, which is not such a bad sequence in itself, but rather that it launched this series of nauseatingly cutesy “baby” versions of popular characters, something that cloyed the hell out of cartoondom in the late 1980’s.

Rubber

Rubber (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Quentin Dupieux
viewed: 06/18/2011

The protagonist/anti-hero awakens, half-buried in sand in a godforsaken desert, unearths himself and wobbles forth. As he encounters things, first bottles and cans, he crushes and destroys them. He finds he has the psychic capability of making things explode, bunnies, birds, and more than anything else, human heads. And though he finds a lovely French girl to follow around, for pretty much the rest of the world, all he’s got is doom.

Did I mention that he’s a tire? A radial?

Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, better known as Mr. Oizo, an electronic/techno musician, Rubber is more a ready-made cult film than any simple other genre reduction.  It’s sort of a horror film, sort of a comedy, not exactly a parody.  It’s absurdist.  Which is something that I typically can appreciate.

But Dupieux works the story from a “meta” angle, framing the whole thing from the first shot, in which Stephen Spinella, dressed as a police officer, climbs from the trunk of a slow-moving car that has carefully knocked over a series of chairs and addresses the audience directly, “breaking the wall,”  as it were.  His monologue, which reiterates the absurdity with explanations of how films often have things that happen for “no reason”, then shows that there is an audience within the film, watching and suffering from afar.

This is the film’s real weakness.  It moves from truly absurd to overly explained.  It’s like if you have to explain a joke, it’s no longer funny…

The film looks quite good, shot with a keen cinematographic eye on digital video, it’s aesthetically appealing, using analog effects, eschewing computer effects.  And Dupieux definitely seems to enjoy exploding  the heads of characters, showing several in gruesome detail.

But ultimately, it’s not as clever as it would like to be.  And ironically, I think if it just told its story in the straight-forward, unironic tonality of its interior narrative, it could have been somewhat sublime perhaps.  Who knows?

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 06/17/2011 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s kind of ridiculous, the pure quantity of superhero movies that have been rolling out for the past couple of years.  Marvel Comics in particular has amped up its production of movies, preparing for next summer’s Avengers movie, giving each of the characters their own solo film in the build-up.  While that run is quite unprecedented and a somewhat interesting, though also deplorable marketing beast that it is, the situation of The X-Men as well as other franchises, is the “re-boot”.

While re-boot or re-imagining is the common style of re-make these days, what’s even more unusual is how short the cycles are now between one run of movies and a whole new era of directing, producing, casting to attempt to re-invigorate a franchise when it’s hit its first commercial failure.

The first X-Men series of films (X-Men (2000), X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)), spanning 2000-2006 with its own one-off spin-off (so far) was a success story for Marvel and the comic book movie in general.  The X-Men have long been a fan favorite, but the characters’ designs and powers would have been very difficult to create without digital special effects.  And the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the comic’s most popular character, made him a star and probably helped pave the way for all comers since.  But the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, which had the feel of a final installment to a trilogy of sorts, was also a bomb of a film.

For X-Men: First Class, the re-boot does something akin to the successful Star Trek (2009) re-boot, going back to a time before the other series came together, an origin story in which the main characters are younger and more vital.  Of course, the Star Trek re-boot had a clever angle of telling a story that hadn’t been told before.  X-Men: First Class goes back to paint the origin of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and others, perhaps re-tweaking tales that have been told in comic books before.

They set it in the early 1960’s, centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a tweak on real world history.  It’s also interestingly close to the real world creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so there is an uncanny sense of aptness in this setting.

The story is very much about how Magneto and Xavier started as colleagues and how they came to be on separate sides of a political spectrum, and eventually arch enemies.  The film gets a lot from McAvoy and Fassbender, who both have charm and give the film some of its striven for depth.

It’s directed by Matthew Vaughn, who only a year ago brought out the fun and ironic superhero movie Kick-As (2010).  Here he’s working with some heavy comic book lore, the origin story of one of comic-book-dom’s favorite gangs, and telling it alongside historical portents of WWII and what almost became WWIII.  And he does a pretty good job of it, considering the sprawling amount of narrative that the film has to pack in.

With your average single superhero movie, one villain/one hero can make for a more balanced story, a little more time to invest in the good and the evil.  When films add more and more heroes and villains they often get off-track.  For a film about a team, each hero and villain needing some significant back-story to give them depth, not to mention the big build-up to when the hero(es) have to save the world in a big showdown…there is just a lot of exposition to contain in a two hour plus movie.

I took the kids, who were nonplussed about going to the movie, but they both enjoyed it.  I do have to give it to Clara who observed to me that “All the characters have superpowers but the women have to take their clothes off to use theirs’.”  Which is an astute feminist criticism from a 7 year old girl.

Super 8

Super 8 (2011) movie poster

(2011) director J.J. Abrams
viewed: 06/12/2011 at Century Downtown Plaza 7, Sacramento, CA

Raved about by several critics as “the best summer movie in many years”, Super 8 is something that most of the summer action movies are not: an original story.  Not an adaptation of pre-existing, novel, comic book, re-make, re-boot, or sequel.  The novelty of being novel.

Of course, its originality is not entirely without heaping mountains of homage.  Calling forth the spirit of other summer films starring a group of kids on an adventure, most significantly E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  Little wonder that Steven Spielberg assisted in producing this film by J.J. Abrams.  The film yearns quite specifically for the early teen years set in 1979, a gaggle of film-making wannabes, shooting a zombie film on the super 8 film stock/format, and dealing with love, life, and death in a small town in Anywheresville, USA (Ohio).

As much film-going as I do with the kids, they really aren’t uber-aware of all the movie hype and stuff that is out there, promoted all over television, bus shelters, and billboards all over everywhere.  And though I read a relatively inordinate amount of “ink” on the subject of movies coming and going all over, they really hadn’t a single clue about this film.  I was a little concerned about taking Clara, who is pretty brave and has sat through a number of PG-13 movies, but the word on the street was that this was the summer’s best flick and that there were some spoilers to watch out for, so I hustled us out to see it, hoping for the best.

Abrams has proved himself an able director in my mind with his successful re-boot of the sci-fi series, Star Trek (2009), among many other producing and writing and directing credits to his credit.  Super 8 had some very cagey marketing, with trailers that indicated all kinds of mystery dating back over a year ago.  The same sort of edgy marketing that promoted the Abrams-produced Cloverfield (2007), which was a serious bust in my opinion.  I was wondering what to expect.

The story of Super 8 is of a gang of semi-nerdy young middle school friends, who are working to make a zombie film.  They land the attractive blond girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to give some emotional hook to their movie (and some heart-palpitating swooning puppy love).  While filming late at night, at a railroad station with a stolen car, they wind up capturing a ridiculous monstrous train wreck, caused deliberately by their strange science teacher.  While they all come away more or less unscathed, they don’t realize that they’ve captured something very secret on their film, and meanwhile, a huge group of government goons start infiltrating the small town, a modern trope that has become a near cliche since the days of The X-Files.

I won’t ruin the surprise for you, if you have no idea what it’s all about.  For me, the surprise was how little of a surprise there is really.  I could have virtually written it all out at a guess and gotten most of the general story-line figured out.  And that’s part of where the “originality” emphasis is a little suspect in regards to the film’s qualities.  It is an original story, but it’s not the most original of stories by any means.

What is very creditable is the casting of the kids in the film.  Fanning is a picture of that age in which girls start to change from children into proto-adults, with the charms and beauty that cause boys to fall head-over-heels, while still being on the cusp of leaving childhood.  It’s a “coming of age” film, in that sense, to a degree.  But the whole gang of kids is wonderfully cast and deftly written, giving them real character and personality.  Though again, I got a real feel of Freaks and Geeks from them a bit too.

All told, I really did enjoy it, perhaps a little too hyper aware of homage and the referential nature of the film.  It’s a film about the joy and pleasure of film-making as well.  The kids both liked it, but what was most interesting and gratifying to me was that their biggest take-away was not the main story of the film, but rather the “film within the film”, the corny-comic zombie flick that the kids make.  Felix wound up casting Clara as a zombie in a planned production of “Zombie Invasion” (who knows how far it will go), and his favorite part of the film was the kids’ film, which is shown in clips over the credits.

Best summer film in many years?  Best simply because it’s an original story, not some re-hash?  I don’t know.  I am all for original stories, original ideas, even if they are very influenced by classics or semi-classics.  I did like it quite well, and if anything, from what I can tell, casting is the film’s biggest coup, and quite often films with casts like this wind up developing through the years.  We shall see.

The Time Machine

The Time Machine (1960) movie poster

(1960) director George Pal
viewed: 06/10/2011

This 1960’s version of The Time Machine was the version that I grew up with.  I never read the book, and though I might have seen some other treatments of it, when I think of a Morlock, I think of a Morlock from George Pal’s version of the story.

The kids were really into it, pretty rapt during much of the film.  Actually, the Morlocks are pretty scary in a pre-Star Trek special effects sort of way.  I was actually a little surprised how well the film went down with them.  I mean, I know it’s H.G. Wells but a story written around 1900, filmed in 1960, in which a vision of the future of 1966 has people wearing those kinds of “future civilization” outfits that it’s doubtful that people will ever wear outside of a science fiction movie.  There is a lot of inherent anachronism.

But it’s brilliant as well.  Rod Taylor is very charming in the lead role, the scientist named George (Wells) who invents a time machine to look into mankind’s future, hating the increase of military might and destructive weaponry, technology to kill people, that dominates his present.  When he does go forth, he manages to land in London first of WWI and then in WWII, and finally in the 1966 in which the world is destroyed by nuclear missiles.  Bad timing, you might say.

So, what’s he do but fly far, far into the future, through a time in which for several millennia he spends encased in solid rock (but only for a few minutes of his time), and he lands in the future future future state inhabited by the bland, beautiful, mindless Eloi and the creepy, Trogodyte-like Morlocks who harvest them.  If you don’t know the story, I’m sorry if I spoilt it for you but you really should know this story by now.

Pal got his start in puppet-oriented stop-motion animation and many of the key special effects are achieved through this technique, and in many cases are very effective.  In fact, when George starts up the time machine at a slow pace, minutes passing in seconds, one of the first things he witnesses is the spinning hands of a clock and the melting of a candle at high speed.  Felix wow’ed at this aloud, which is pretty impressive for a kid of this generation who’s seen all kinds of computer special effects of greater magnitude.  It speaks to the power of the technique when employed well and executed in stylish fashion.  Equally, the sun and moon, passing over the glass-windowed porch in which he sits, effectively communicates the concept of the passing of time.

Both Felix and Clara were really intrigued by the concept of time travel.  The way that the film depicts George sitting the in the same place in space, while moving through time really came across to them vividly.  And even though Felix derided the lava flowing through London in 1966 as “totally a model”, other aspects of the film’s effects struck them significantly.  We also watched part of but not all of a feature-ette shot in 1993 that describes some of the effects and designs, which they were both pretty into, as well.

It’s the fun, funny, thing about watching these curated films that we watch together, such a span of time and experience and history and culture.  It’s most funny to me because this wasn’t one of the first things I’d thought to show them by any means, but it was a big success.  We’ll have to watch a couple more George Pal films now, like his 1953 War of the Worlds or his 1962 The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm or his 1964 The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.  Another trope has been opened.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Jessica Oreck
viewed: 06/05/2011

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is a funky-sounding title for a very interesting and thought-provoking documentary about Japanese culture and the Japanese “obsession”/relationship/appreciation for insects.  The film, while produced and directed by an American, is narrated in Japanese, instructing and giving some background, historically and culturally, about a long-standing relationship with the insect world.  Though the film has this instructive voice-over, it also tends to flit around across various aspects of the ways that insects are absorbed in Japanese culture.

The film begins with the large beetles that are collected in the forests and sold in the cities as pets, revered and well-cared for by children and adults.  But the film doesn’t merely focus on beetles.  We are told how dragonflies came to symbolize strength and became symbols for the Samurai class.  There are festivals in which people travel to watch fireflies swarm in the night.  There are also some less-appealing creatures like silkworms and another that looks like an enormous maggot.

Writer/director Jessica Oreck traces these connections to Japanese aesthetics reaching back to Shinto animism, belief that spirits embody every living thing.  Thus all creatures are honored, even some of the most lowly.  She also connects other Japanese cultural motifs such as Mono no aware, which bears an appreciation for the transience of life, the short-lived transitional world, the impermanence of things.  She also draws on the form of haiku and how it’s simple concision represents the aspect of impossibility of communicating some concepts in words.

What also comes to the fore is the contrast between the urban world where these insects are sold, where most of present day Japanese people live, and the woods and mountains and countryside that from which these insects are collected.  The insects represent a connection to nature, something from which the modern day Japanese (or modern day anywhere city dweller) has detachment.   The deeper connections to aesthetics and beliefs systems that honor and revere the natural world, reflect a culture that was once much more in tune with.

I actually found this film quite interesting, probably one of the most interesting I’ve seen this year.  It is, of course, an outsider’s perspective on Japanese culture, while it does try to document and reveal information accurately.  It is  what it is, and to my mind, it was very contemplative, and something that I have been recommending a lot to anyone who will listen.

Monkeybone

Monkeybone (2001) movie poster

(2001) director Henry Selick
viewed: 05/29/11

Though I’ve developed an appreciation for director Henry Selick, particularly for his most recent film, Coraline (2009), I’d never gotten around to seeing his one non-fully animated feature, Monkeybone. After his first two feature films, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), which won a lot of acclaim, casting Brendan Fraser and Chris Kattan in a romp of live-action and animation story adapted from a graphic novel, Dark Town,  just didn’t quite look right.

Loaned to me by a friend who appreciated the film’s qualities among its weaknesses, I wound up watching it with the kids.  They actually liked it pretty well.

It’s a little bit Beetlejuice (1988), Brazil (1985), and a number of other things, but it’s not all that well-conceived.

The story is of a cartoonist with sexually-repressed though idealistic goals winds up in a coma, in a place called “Dark Town”, where all dreams and nightmares live.  There is a mixture of live-action, stop-motion animation, and other analog 2-D costumes and effects.  Some of the designs are striking and vivid, in the surreal nightmareland that they portray, but some seem like cheap knock-offs of things one has seen before.  The cartoonist (Fraser) wants to get back to reality but is tricked by his creation, Monkeybone who escapes to inhabit Fraser’s real-life body.

It’s actually a pretty convoluted narrative for such a short and strange little film.

The biggest problem is in the characters themselves.  Fraser, who is likable in the benign tumor sort of way, is far from being up to the effort of ranging from regular guy to manic nincompoop.  And Monkeybone, the raging Id of Fraser’s character, voiced as he is by John Turturro, is a poor attempt at a vital, perverse creation.  There are flashes of possible genius, but mixed in with low humor and weak execution.

The resultant effort has some merits but is a gaunt hodgepodge of surreal, witty, and lame.  And it’s kind of a shame.  There are elements here that could have made a film as good as Beetlejuice or Brazil but it certainly didn’t come together.  If anything, Chris Kattan was a big obstruction to my seeing it.  It turns out that he has a very small role and is actually quite good as a re-animated corpse trying to win his sweetheart’s love.

Like I said, the kids enjoyed it.  Felix noted that he thought it was pretty funny.  It’s not atrocious, but it’s kind of atrocious in my opinion.  But it has its charms as well.

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938) movie poster

(1938) director Howard Hawks
viewed: 05/29/11

My latest “with the kids” experiment was introducing them to the classic Hollywood screwball comedy.  And to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Howard Hawks.  I don’t know if this was the ideal film from this period to start with, but I’d long been wanting to re-visit it myself and thought we’d go for it.

While neither of them laughed out loud much or at all, they both said that they liked the film.  Though they kept thinking that someone was going to get eaten by “Baby”.  Maybe that is just from seeing more black-and-white horror films than comedies.  Who knows?

Bringing Up Baby has been the template for wacky romance comedies since it came out in 1938.  Grant plays a scientist who is building the first complete “Brontosaurus” (which even in my youth was still a dinosaur, though now is not).  He is about to marry a chilly gal who wants him to land some big funds for their museum and his work.  Then into his life walks Hepburn, a flighty, goofy, silly, lovely woman who takes an immediate shine to him, and quickly destroys all of his best chances at making a good impression on his would-be philanthropist.  And into her life drops “Baby”. the tamed leopard.

What can I say, it’s a classic.  Great stuff from Grant and Hepburn (it may be her most appealing role).  Hawks is indeed part of the American auteur group, and this is one of his best comedies.