Thursday, June 23, 2011

I Saw The Devil (2010) Review

After his fiancee(Oh San-ha) is horrifically attacked & eventually murdered by a psychopath (Choi Min-Sik) one snowy night, a secret service agent (Lee Byung-hun) with a few tips from his beloved's retired chief father, takes leave to embark on a mission of pure wrath upon the man responsible. And what we have as a result is possibly the end of the "Korean Revenge Film". Helmed with almost as much maniacal glee as the film's antagonist, South Korean genre-masher Kim Jee-Woon returns partially returns to his grit & grue roots as I Saw The Devil (Akmareul boattda) makes a go at a subgenre that perhaps never should have gone anywhere after the films of Chan-wook Park. But films such as Bong Joon-ho's spectacular MOTHER, and countless others have shown that there is indeed something that has been brewing within the South Korean consciousness that allows these films to both have the occasional deep impact, as well as resonate with so many beyond its shores. And aside from the obvious (nazis) what makes the most ideal moral pin cushion than a sleazy serial murderer, pray ask?

As Soo-hyun finally tracks down the villain (within the film's first 40 minutes, making the film seem to be working in reverse of the typical psycho thriller), and thwarts his attempts to claim another victim. The ensuing confrontation, while spectacular, ends with a twist leaving Soo-hyun able to track the suddenly-freed monster, Kyung-chul wherever he goes as well as hear his every word. Swearing that the killer's woes are merely beginning, the film in high gear takes on another element that I neglected to mention...the film is also a comedy. That's right. For those perhaps wincing at this idea must consider that director Jee-woon is no stranger to pitch-black comedy.(the criminally underseen Quiet Family was the inspiration for Takashi Miike's The Happiness Of The Katakuris. This also starred Min-Sik, whom I haven't seen this rotund since that 1998 debut for Jee-woon.) Even in the scenes prior to this game, the film is shameless in its willingness to make a shock gag. This is perhaps the film's most unexpected element considering the subject matter. Now again, even Park's films dabbled in the gallows for his films, but never to such a hyperbolic level. It becomes such a tonal tightrope act that goes for the establishment of a certain style, but it rarely works beyond the initial setup as Soo-hyun begins toying with the hapless Kyung-chul every time he attempts to prey on his instincts. At times, it only felt appropriate to call the film Cockblocker The Motion Picture, but considering international release, the title they settled on works just fine.

So in retrospect, the two mainstream H-town films I can quickly think of to compare with in regards to thematics, are the core ideas behind Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight, as well as Scorsese's rendition of Cape Fear (which is an obvious influence. Min-Sik's slicked back hair and flare for colorful shirts are a fun nod to DeNiro.). Asking the questions of how far can an ethically person go before one falls too deep into the abyss they obsessively are staring down, becoming something possibly worse than the problem that led them here. And in this equation, Soo-hyun is an interesting return performer for Jee-woon as he plays the film almost rail straight as a broken shell, an obsessed violence machine unable to come down from his despair. Even as his revenge seems to be making headway in finding the man responsible, it never becomes enough to just kill him. The game becoming almost like a drug. And with his training, gadgets, and his almost Jack Bauer-like veneer, it is almost as if Byung-hun is channeling a performance for a completely different film. Even as his at-one-time to be father-in-law, Police Squad Chief Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan) and sister-in-law plead for Soo-hyun to stop all of this, there is clearly no end in sight for his designs. Now for a film so ready to tackle what can ostensibly be more challenging, and thought-provoking, the film opts to careen from rollercoaster bump to rollercoaster bump.

Granted, all of this is also obviously by design as his quarry in Min-sik is so unequivocally off-the-rails insane, that he in end sum is everything Soo-hyun can never be. Min-Sik, in his first major film in years embodies the beastly Kyung-chul with his expected energy and panache. He's part Max Cady, part Anton Chigurh, with the rest, pure Min-sik. The character has no qualms about who he hurts. And as the film tinkers with asking what made him this way, both Jee-woon and Min-sik go out of their way to keep us guessing, whether there is any reason there at all or not. He is a walking void of death & destruction. Even as our troubled protagonist struggles to find the one weak spot in order to generate the greatest pain from his prey, he is overlooking the obvious in ways that are meant to provoke what Jee-woon hopes to be the more rational audience.

The often common, antithetical argument intact, these revenge films reflect a sort of purging of years of unresolved strife, not to mention an unyielding hint of paranoia.

Which all would be fine, if this film seemed to know where it was headed. As things begin to heat up between our two, the film takes on a decidedly ultra-bleak comedic running gag that implies that in Jee-woon's world, Kyung-chul is far from the only sadistic murderer-type to roam the countryside. In one of the film's more truly jaw-dropping moments, this is established in no uncertain terms, and returns to this well soon after for a wildly unnecessary narrative cul-de-sac in an already drawn out second act. While all of this is beautifully executed by Jee-woon, and his crew, the film continually wants to not only have its cake and eat it, it wants the whole darn shop with it. By the finale, everything seems all too exhausted for any kind of satisfactory resolution. Perhaps this was intended, but it really feels like that second act really took the momentum out before any kind of home stretch. So we have a film that essentially blows its wad far too early, and leaves one ready to be done with these films. It really is time to move on.

                               Jee-woon, now considered an internationally recognized filmmaker of considerable talent, and almost hot off the success of his Raiders Of The Lost Ark meets The Man With No Name saga, The Good The Bad The Weird is now in a position to pretty much make any movie he wishes it seems.(my personal favorite still being A Tale Of Two Sisters) And the idea that THIS was the film he had in mind may only make one think of just how rough that previous shoot, and post period was. Because it's pretty clear from this film that a volcano of rage had been lying dormant for sometime, just itching for the moment to blow. It's the only way one can reconcile with what we have here. And before one imagines that I checked out with the film, or am ready to dismiss this as a completely sadistic misfire, I would like to remind folks that not too long ago I gave favorable reviews to several truly dark French horror films in the past. In fact, I occasionally enjoy a good endurance test. Nothing wrong with a good, ferocious gut-check once in a while. And while I Saw The Devil flirts with some of humanity's worst attributes to mixed results, it is still a technical triumph. Few films today feel as new as South Korea's, and Jee-woon's sandbox is a truly beauful sandbox- even if the box is littered with viscera & troubling ideas.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Movie Memories With Dad - A Father's Day Special

                            Now here's a day I hardly get a chance to share words regarding. Aside from the fact that it tends to land on Sundays, making it a little trickier than normal to get anything posted, it's also a challenge to find a novel angle from which to take it. So I've just decided that it should really be all about simplicity, and just share some paternal movie memories. A means to perhaps illustrate where all of this madness began in the first place seems perfect, actually. Because when everything is said & done, the nucleus of my love of myths & larger than life characters belong to those days that came every two weeks, when visitation times with my dad took place.

And like so many, the moviegoing ritual was a constant. In many ways, it rivaled church. There were even the rites one had to perform in order to have the ideal "movie watching with dad" experience. More often than not, this would include the occasional arriving late, only to stay for the next showing to catch up on the film's early portions. Thankfully, this never hurt too terribly as my young, impressionable brain saw it not unlike serialized TV. There was also the rite of splitting up the snack bar orders, where I mastered the ability to carry off a ridiculous haul alongside him, a pair of junk food pack mules. That was us. Going to the movies was like The World Series, every time. So when it came to the titles I remember seeing for the first time this way, it only makes these memories that much more powerful:

Here Are A Few:

The original Star Wars Trilogy (will especially never forget Jedi-that was an immense experience)
Raiders Of The Lost Ark
The Road Warrior (R-rated fare was no big deal to my father, so as long as the story seemed to justify what we saw on screen. We had many talks. Then again, some films he chose simply because he was himself a classic action movie junkie)
Superman II
The Thing
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
E.T. The Extraterrestrial
Rocky III
Conan The Barbarian
The Big Chill ( dad didn't know what it was about, and it was a Sneak Preview after Strange Invaders!)
The Neverending Story
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
The Terminator (This was a significant moment, because it was the first movie where we had a full on talk about not only how cool it was, but of the story & the ideas it was presenting. Much more than an action film.)
The Goonies
(Every Bond film throughout this era Roger Moore - Timothy Dalton)
Top Gun
Robocop (Took that Terminator discussion, and took it even further.)

Some of the more ::AHEM:: unusual pics from this amazing time period-
Laserblast (SERIOUSLY.)
The Soldier
Sharky's Machine (Possibly one of the least responsible picks of the bunch. Man, oh man..that finger chopping. I'm sure Dad felt a little twinge with that in that darkened auditorium.)
Sudden Impact (O.K., not terribly unexpected - but as a kid watching Sondra Locke shoot guys in the crotch? Talk about impressions.)
Six Pack (whyyyy?)
The Pirate Movie (I'm certain to this day that I had done something terribly wrong the visit before. And to this day, he has yet to fess up. It had to be a punishment. It just had to be.)
The Sword & The Sorcerer
Treasure Of The Four Crowns(IN 3D!!!!)
Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared Syn (also in 3D!!!)
Rambo: First Blood Part II

And the list goes ever on. Of course, we also spent many a trip out and about, tending to bonding through classical means (fishing, hiking, traveling, etc.). But there was a true sense of comraderie that came among us once we would catch wind of a title that would inspire us to bee-line it straight to one of Palm Spring's finer movie houses. And even when we weren't able too, this was also a time of rampant movies shown on TV. This is where a great deal of my love for particularly asian cinema began to crystallize. We won't even get started on those great Godzilla marathons that would play during special weekends. Mix this with his own love of model kit making, and admiration for all things military otaku, I could still see him venturing out within his own Otaku No Video kick, hunting for the latest and most detailed gun & war machine replicas. It certainly goes a long way toward explaining a lot of the things that imbue me. If I had to think of a cinematic version of the man, I'd earnestly pick Kanbei Shimada from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. He's that cool.

And yet, it always came back to the most important elements - respect for the dreams & intelligence of the progeny, unwavering commitment towards being a father regardless of the situation, and of course, love unconditional. So for the day, I raise a glass to all the dads out there, be them biological, adoptive, or surrogate. You are a most precious resource. Thanks to you all!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Podcasting Something Epic ( Sans Hyperbole)

After months of threatening with it as a possibility, Jenny & I have finally delivered a podcast to rival that of Combo Attack's most ridiculously long episodes. Only this time, it's regarding films that demand the length, as we tackle two of modern cinema's most important early entries in what has become something of a lost art; a truly good chinese historical epic! In the latest Adventures On Infant Island podcast, we talk up the crowd-pleasing spectacle of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor(1987), as well as the ferociously personal achievement of Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine(1993) in a potentially landmark episode.

Check it out via the site: HERE

Or...heck with it!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Movie Review - Super 8 (2011)

It is 1979...

                     Four months after losing his mother to a terrible industrial accident, 13 year old Joe Lamb sneaks out of the house, under the nose of his small town deputy father to gather with friends for a night of film shooting. Newly enlisted for their ambitious zombie opus, is classmate, Alice Dainard who has sneaked out to underage drive the boys to the train station in Lillian, Ohio's outskirts, and co-star in the film. However, what the night has in store may have implications beyond anything these kids, nor anyone else in town could ever possibly imagine.

                     There is something about film waxing nostalgic for another time that is capable of enrapturing viewers with a sense of comfort. A sense of the familiar for those older audience members, able to clock what is happening on screen. But this is also a two-fold problem when the film is unable to implement anything new and fresh to the proceedings. Firstly, the identification becomes a spoiling factor when the script is otherwise lacking central focus. And the second is that while nice on the surface, it is very easy for a film to roll around in its own artifice, keeping us from remembering that we are here for a story. We've seen this recently in other major releases, most egregiously, TRON LEGACY. To see Generation X have its hand at the period piece has been something of a barbed affair to say the least, and in the case of JJ Abrams' grand scale ode to the early films of producer Steven Spielberg, is an entertaining, albeit lacking affair when it comes to giving us a new angle to a world so familiar to so many.

                                   The underlying emotional core of the film centers on young Joe, who still secretly carries his mother's locket necklace with him wherever he goes, and the revelation that the capable and resourceful Alice, is also the daughter of the man (played by Ron Eldard) who shares a terrible secret regarding the fateful day four months back. This naturally affects the already strained relationship between Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler), who's early on been rumoured to have been something of an absentee dad. So when the film's central event involving a truly spectacular train crash brings over military attention, and boatloads of secrecy involving the train's cargo, sets into motion the vanishing of not only local machine parts and wanton destruction, but eventually a loss of local citizens and even pet dogs, his role eventually has to step up to be the town's father. And with this mountain of responsibility, the concerns of his son spending time with friends, working on makeup & monsters, while hanging with a local troublemaker's daughter could only be the final straw. Not to mention the relationship between Joe, and his filmmaking buddy Charles Kaznik(A VERY well done Riley Griffiths) as all of this spools out of control after that night.

                                  There is indeed an incredible amount of detail granted to the production as expected. Right on down to the lovingly added AMBLIN Entertainment logo at the opening, and the simulated graininess of era-appropriate film stock, Abrams' 1979 is a wonderful re-creation of a time quite familiar, and evocative of the last days of disco, and the coming onslaught of New Wave, as kids were compelled to step out into the world, and explore possibilities with sometimes very dangerous vigor. From the homes, to the cars, and even technology, the film gets so much right, and goes even further to almost perfectly capture The Beard at his most everyman best. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and ET receive a lot of love in this film as well as some unexpected nods to Joe Dante's Explorers, and naturally Richard Donner's The Goonies (which Spielberg also produced). The world of Lillian, Ohio is perhaps the film's biggest achievement complete with grand sweep, and feel of analog, as Joe, and his buddies struggle at first attempt to keep quiet about what they witnessed, only to have the problem turn the screws with everything and everyone around them.

                        But it is when Abrams himself, along with his script that keeps the film from being anything more than just a grand nod to this particular time, which is a shame since it's clear that so much else is in place. As his post-grand slam performances with 2009's Star Trek, and even (2006) Mission Impossible III, it is clear that this is a much more personal work, but when the emotional arcs never seem to gel in any satisfying fashion, the final product feels relatively hollow. Especially when the film goes out of its way to cast no major name actors with clearly great results (leads Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning are especially game in this, as are the rest who are unfortunately deeply underwritten), there is plenty of bold to go around, but when it comes time for the visual and incredible sound effects, nearly everything else gets drowned out. And this is likely attributed to a script that never seems willing to follow through on the growing divide between the kids and their parents. It is something that Spielberg's films understood in those times, even when they were more background. What is brought to center stage (which for many reasons, I've been tiptoeing about as it really needs to be seen, even if it is a little more obvious that expected) never seems to connect terribly well with what is happening in the lives of these character. While Super 8 attempts to merge the world of the ordinary, and the fantastic, the disconnect is almost constant, and never resolves itself right unto a finale right out of ET. The film never seems to have the patience necessary once the sturm and drang kicks in, so all we're left with are often one-note stereotypes, mixed in with some well-intentioned nods to more character driven pieces of the time.

                            Letting go becomes the film's thematic driving force, which seems strange considering the fact that the film is a throwback, which was clearly the goal. Even when the director's signature swooping cameras, and full 360 moves start coming into play, the film attempts to merge eras in an at times jarring mix. And when the mystery plaguing the town comes to a full boil come the third act, it feels as if some vital pages were either missing, or neglected from the script, which leaves the rest of the film in mere spectacle territory, so all viewers have to fall back on is the nostalgia factor. But there is only so much nostalgia one can take before it begins to wallow, which is a deep shame since so much else seems to be working. Being a late addition to Copeland's Gen-X, this reviewer lands at something of an admirer of the film when love should have been the operative word.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

The year is 1962, and a world weaned off of several decades of conflict is once again reaching a divisive brink, as the United States and the U.S.S.R. spiral towards irrevocable conflict As The Age Of The Atom has dawned, humanity must now grapple with a newfound possibility of nuclear holocaust with casualties in the realm of the incalculable, and no likely winner. And yet beneath this cacophony of tension, another rift is brewing that could shatter the very reality so many seem to be fighting over.

Young professor-to-be, Charles Xavier(James McAvoy), just finishing college and ready to hopefully expand awareness of gifted human beings by way of genetic mutation is called upon to assist the CIA who have run afoul of a nuclear plot of unimaginable proportion. A plot spearheaded by rogue scientist, Sebastian Shaw(Kevin Bacon) who also harbors the revelation that he himself is a powerful mutant, and in the company of several "enabled" accomplices. It is within the belief of CIA agent Moira MacTaggert(Rose Byrne) that in order to thwart Shaw's plans, it is time to look toward similar individuals with their respective abilities. Little do they know that somewhere else in the world, a young & vengeful Erik Lensherr(Michael Fassbender) is on a neverending quest to track down and destroy every last remnant of the Nazi contingent he feels responsible for his painful past during the Holocaust, and is zeroing in on Shaw who in fact was once known as Dr. Schmidt, the man directly responsible for murdering his mother before his very eyes when he was a child, and unable to display his frightening magnetic power on call. With the open and empathic Charles, and the broken & angry Erik's ideologies on a collision course, the greatest conflict has yet to begin.

As a general rule, I tend to intensely dislike the very idea of a prequel as it implies not only a bit of laziness on the part of studios, incapable of looking anywhere but backward as a means to cannibalize profits from a well-worn property, but also almost always fall on the lazy side by nudging at how cool it is by referencing instead of operating freely as its own film. One doesn't even have to think very hard to see why this has become something of a bad word in certain geek circles. But there have been the occasional third base hit that not only stays true to the franchise that inspired it, but offered exciting new avenues for the franchise to breathe, and I'm happy to report that Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class fits hand in glove with Bryan Singer's first two installments in what can be considered to be one of the most universal of superhero properties.

So this is where I reiterate that enthusiasm notwishstanding, I am by no means a superhero comics fan. But the most exciting possibilities of comics that hit home with me are one with a certain tether to our reality. Ones that reveal often undermentioned truths, and perhaps explore these themes in a visceral, entertaining manner. Which in many ways is why the X-Men franchise has been one of so much potential since it's early days in the latter 60s. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the mythology of X-Men was one of the medium's master strokes implicit of the time in which it was made. And when Bryan Singer took to bat with the first film in 1999, it was clear that audiences were at long last ready to embrace the civil rights angle, as well as the CG-laden spectacle one would only expect. But what noone expected, was the attempt to ground the film in a wholly new realm of verisimilitude that has remained a powerful influence in adaptations of comics since. Even if Stephen Norrington's BLADE was a precursor of comic-to-film-ad-nauseum to come, it was Singer's rough and ready event that changed the outlook of the comic book movie forever. And then Singer & Co. took it a huge step further with X2, and it was as if the prayers of not only comic book fans, but of genre geeks of all backgrounds were answered. The bar was raised, and it seemed like the craft could only fly higher....

And then came X-Men 3...And then Origins...It was as if Fox never seemed to have a clue what they had on their hands, and decided to single-handedly destroy what goodwill had been gathered by those first two entries.

But then, it also stands to reason that one of the biggest strengths Singer brought to the first two films is not only great thematic filmmaking, but sharp use of ensemble, which is in no way an easy task for a two-hour film filled with massive special effects. The films grasped the debate between both mutant factions, as well as the human reaction to the conflict which only serves to raise the stakes against Charles, and his school of mutants in their quest for greater acceptance in the world. The writing and directing need to perform a tricky balancing act in order for us to see both Charles & Erik's points of view without reducing either's validity, and Singer's films struck that balance nicely.

Based on a story by Sheldon Turner & Bryan Singer, and a script handled by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Vaughn, one could only be wary by so many hands, and yet an overwhelming amount of it works seamlessly as the film adopts an almost Bondian sense of globetrotting, mixed with a classy early 1960s edge ala the legendary secret agent.

Of the many effective touches in the film, one that hits home as an admirer of the early films is the relationship between Charles & Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a shapeshifter who's unusual appearance serves as a counterpoint to his ability to read minds and use telepathy, which cannot be outwardly seen by average people. There is a lingering sense of melancholy throughout this as those familiar know of her future role in the mythos, and knowing what they go through here only makes the first two films that much more painful. One would think that Charles' and Erik's relationship would be enough to fuel an entire film, and the fact that this is in here as well, only makes the inevitable that much more emotionally pummeling. From the initial meetings between Charles and Raven, and onto the first time he runs across Erik, it is clear that he is longing to be something of a den mother to many who feel so alienated by some uncontrollable twist of fate. There is a sincerity to McAvoy's performance that serves as a potent setup for things to come, and do they come in torrents.

As Shaw's plans with the Hellfire Club begin to advance aggressively, the CIA ( with the help of McTaggart & an open and curious Man In Black, played by Oliver Platt) open up the ability for Charles & Erik to seek out fresh & skilled mutant recruits to help stop what eventually becomes distorted history in Cuba. We are introduced to a number of young exceptionals such as Angel(Zoë Kravitz), Darwin(Edi Gathegi), Banshee(Caleb Landry Jones), Havok(Lucas Till ) , along with the already invaluable help of youth prodigy, Hank McCoy(played with awkward aplomb by Nicholas Hoult), who's own personal arc could easily have been the focal point of an entire story. And yet the overarching plot featuring our heroic few against those who would destroy us, and possibly impact historical events is handled well enough to carry several subplots that cement the classically universal themes of the original comics and films.

Which leads us to the flourishes that Vaughn's film brings to the table. As the central theme has always been one reminiscent of not only the civil rights movement of the era (which again, only makes the film's possibilities stronger), but of any great struggle for equality, the film brings its own unique stamps to the desk by going for some of the more obvious, but not as often stated struggles of the past; particularly of women in a so-called "man's world", and seething memories of enslavement. The era itself being something of a central character in the film is perhaps its masterstroke.

Division, and unification are at the core of the piece which is clearly reiterated by way of Charles as advice to Erik. The yearning for a place between rage & serenity is a difficult place to find, and this is where Erik's ultimate choice lies in view of everything he sees around him.
 In no way is this oversold throughout the film, but it is there just enough to make for some sly commentary on the era, as well as a means to bolster what comes to be Erik's ultimate calling in the film. Again, the man who would be the infamous Magneto may be seeing the other side of the argument from Xavier, but he is not merely driven by impulsive emotion. It is easy to see why his influence could be so strong, and in the hands of Fassbender, this works far better than the films first half almost implies. Vaughn's film lets us know where he stands from the beginning, and never lets us forget that even as he is elated to know that there are others out there like him, he still refuses to accept a notion of humanity ever accepting them despite all they're doing to potentially save the world. Seeing the 1960s through Erik Lensherr's eyes, division seems inevitable, with only a just purging being the reasonable option.

And what of Mr. Sebastian Shaw & Hellfire? Looking at Shaw, we can see quite well the man who would shape Erik's life by painting the vision of a charismatic, debonair monster in disguise. By making him possibly a greater ideological threat than what would come later can only conjure up horrible thoughts of what caused this man to envision an improved world with mutation reigning supreme. And yet the unexpected casting of Kevin Bacon is terrific. There is a mixture of cool-handed intelligence, Bond villain-esque humor, and ultimately simmering rage to his performance that helps us even better understand the origins of what would be the Brotherhood. Along with him are Emma Frost(January Jones), a telepath capable of deflecting another's ability to read by way of forming crystalline skin. Azazel(Jason Flemyng): a teleporter, and Riptide(Álex González), an air manipulator make up the remainder of Shaw's A-team, and are formidable as a Brotherhood prototype. With perhaps a hint of progressiveness just a stone's throw away, it feels reasonable to accept certain late additions to the team, even if it moves too quickly to feel truly earned.

Which is perhaps one of my only real issues with the film as a whole. Vaughn, fresh off of his no-studio daredevil stunt via last year's Kick-Ass is a director who embraces the general, and can move incredibly fast from plot point to plot point, which in many ways succeeds. But there are times when the whole could likely have been improved by letting the viewer breathe in the world for a little extra time. Two good opportunities lie with the early days between Charles and Erik. It is efficiently told for sure, but at times it feels as if there is one more good philosophical conversation missing between the two. And this is made up for by a great moment in the second half which is almost marred by an overbearing score by Henry Jackman.(I'll get back to that in a tic)And this also happens after the death of a character. There is a need for our young recruits to truly clock the stakes at hand, and it all passes by too quickly. Again, this is minor, but to have gone any faster would have undermined the film's already loaded storyline, and thereby hurting the inevitable payoff, which inevitably works in a lovely fashion. Vaughn and company deftly dodge that, and offer a solid thesis on how we came to be in the universe we have seen in the more standout films of the franchise to date, finally making this a successful trilogy of sorts. (the feeling of forgetting that X3 ever happened, and that this fits well as part ONE, makes for a doubly satisfying experience.)

I just wish the score were differently handled. As serviceable and fun the Jackman music is, it is far too modern rock score for the era we are witnessing, and a tale like this is classical in nature, which calls for something closer to John Ottman's music for X2. A minor quibble perhaps, but there it is. A film with this much class, and thoughfulness deserves nothing less.

And yet despite these minor gripes, there is much to love about X-Men: First Class. It is a welcome return to the emotional center of what makes this cast of characters so endearing, and relatable. And it serves as a smart & sleek counter part to other above par comic book adaptations. It proves that one doesn't have to be grim & overbearing, or drunk on familiarity to sell a successful action fantasy. X-Men is a mythos that deserves nothing less than careful exploration, and can offer new dimensions far into the future as so many of us at one time or another have felt ostracized for being "different". It is a testament to something inherently human, which is why comics themselves can be important in responsible, intelligent hands. And yes, it can kick royal ass when necessary.

Which is why Vaughn's film is an unmitigated success; it both compliments the best elements of Singer's films, and infuses this backstory with both a sense of adventure and impending tragedy that could easily have been another studio cash-grab. From script to cast, this is an unexpected return to form for a franchise long in the muck due to one bureaucratic miscalculation or another. It is also telling that Vaughn had been one of the directors attached to X3 before having to drop. It feels very much like he has had a great X-Men film in him brewing for a long time. And perhaps that extra few years was a necessary  for this particular brewing period in order to make this happen. And if that's the case, it's time to break into the tap, because X-Men is back, and possibly better than ever.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Ending Of Fight Club & The Science Of The Exploding Shark

Spoilers lie for Fight Club & Jaws. You Have Been Warned!

Imagine if you will; your nth draft of your proposed film project has finally been green lit, and with a respected name director attached to helm it. The production process works like a dream. It all seems to be going beautifully, despite the fact that we're months off from final edit, and its pretty foggy at this point as to whether or not we know that the vision of the film works as a potent, cohesive whole. Millions of dollars spent on what can fairly be called something of a massive gamble. From the signs of all involved, all seems well.

But then a creeping worry arrives.

Your finale leaves the reader/potential viewer in a bit of a quandary. The hero needs that one last push. That final bit of oomph that can take the project into a potentially crowd-pleasing stratosphere. Problem is, that up until shooting, the film was hewing pretty close to some manner of reality. And the only logical thing to do with a story that has done so well until now, is to take a risk, and do the possibly unthinkable.

That's right....We pull an exploding shark.

Now what prompted all this was an old discussion regarding the Jeff Uhls penned, David Fincher directed subversive cult classic, Fight Club, when many have complained regarding the final denoument. As our narrator (namelessly played by Edward Norton) has finally revealed to us, not only his long-in-denial alternate personality in hunky mangod revolutionary, Tyler Durden (an unforgettable Brad Pitt), but their mad plan for destroying several blocks of credit card company buildings as part of their now nearly out of control, Project Mayhem moves into legend territory. The "hapless" captive in "narrator" soon realizes that in order to defeat Tyler from his mind, there is only one logical conclusion seeing as how the gun in Tyler's hand moments before, is really in his. The ensuing gunshot into his mouth, is seen coming out of the back of his cheek which soon is clocked by Tyler who smells smoke, and then succumbs to what looks like a perfect bullet wound out of the back of his head. While much of this is close in many ways to the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name, the big change comes when the thought captured Marla Singer comes back into the picture to find our narrator with the bullet wound, and very much alive as the bombs go off, setting everything back to (possibly) zero.

Mixing this with the giddy/creepy strands of the Pixies classic, "Where Is My Mind?, we are given the Tyler Durden special before credits roll. Now the complaints come as this in many ways seems unjustifiably bizarre, and not to mention screwy as the novel ends with narrator in hospital, tended to by nurses who seem to know that certain plans are still in motion. Now as much as I love that book's ending, it is by no means cinema-worthy. Especially in a film so rife with some of the most uncompromising notions, and actions ever captured in a mainstream release. The explaination I often offer is that in 1999, there was a great anxiety regarding the coming milennium that had been building up over the years prior, and perhaps that was in perfect alignment to even allow Palahniuk's novel to be opted into a large-scale production complete with name stars, some astounding CG-animation, special effects, and product placement so brilliant, it could only be IN a novel. Fight Club is simply a film that has NO place in a multiplex, and yet there it is...for all to see..Black blood & all.

Which leads me to something I mentioned via Twitter earlier today. Perhaps a means must be shared to help explaina way the difference between mediums. Especially the difference between independent, and large scale films. As well as films versus literature. And since film is cemented in the language of the immediate, there are varying ways to play with source material that doesn't stray too terribly far, and yet seems..well..out of this world.

So in the spirit of Jumping The Shark, or Deus Ex Machina, and for internet's sake, let's just call this phenomenon #explodingshark.

This is when a film is working on a multitude of levels, and by some minute decision, a change is made to the main character's final actions that border on straining whatever credulity that the preceding two-hours had established. Or maybe not straining so much as takes liberties with them in a final wild push.

The name, naturally comes from the story of possibly the ultimate surprise success story, the production of JAWS when the then still up-and-coming Steven Spielberg, beset by a number of production problems, came up with a peculiar new death for the film's titular Great White menace. Upon bringing this up to original novelist, Peter Benchley, a fairly knowledgable name regarding maritime life, and oceanic survival protested that for Brody in the now nearly completely sunken Orca, to in fact shoot the aqualung recently shoved in the shark's maw, the ensuing reaction would be nothing as aqualungs do not explode when shot.

Spielberg's response is nothing if not iconic, and telling:

"I have the audience in the palm of my hand by this point. They will believe anything I tell them!"

And how much was that decision worth? Oh, well over $260,000,000 in its initial run, the birth of the summer blockbuster, and a firm place in Hollywood history.

What Benchley eventually granted to Spielberg, was that film language by its very nature is very different. The emotional release from that film's wild assortment of tension, and memorable characters hit home in all the best populist forms. But this is far from a fix when regarding films made years after. We've seen time and again that it takes a certain alchemy of stoytelling, editing, performance, and energy to captivate an audience and suspend disbelief with such efficiency. And as audiences have grown to become more discerning by the year, the challenge becomes even greater when considering this rarely used narrative trump card.

Now again, only certain films with a certain propulsive quality that seem to be working on multiple levels can earn an #explodingshark card. These things are not cheap by any means, and can only be used once per film. Overplay these, and the audience can turn on you. (see M.Night Shymalan) The operative idea is for filmmakers to pick their shots, and only use them when instincts seem in alignment with the planets. Films need to earn moments like these, and often they don't, and just come out of the blue. (strangely enough, the last Gamera film I reviewed does have this problem at the very end, but the film is so lightweight in many ways that it hardly bears mentioning.)

So an #exploding shark is something that can be considered anathema by most major studios, particlarly in a time most desperate for a definitive financial success. The race has become even more intense due to changes in moviegoer habits, and has many studios running scared of taking even the most innocuous of risks, which is a shame. So in looking back at the mentioned Fight Club change, it seems more than understandable for a near 50 million dollar production to go in what can still be considered a (literally) ballsy fashion. Laughing mockingly at a coming decade of eschewed risk, and diminished returns. More and more, it seems like a perfect choice. And if not perfect, fitting (which is still great considering that this is a film that with it's rampant anti-consumerism, and near -again, mockingly- fascist bent, in no way could ever be green lit by a studio now. It remains a monumental rarity in the landscape of Hollywood.).

So naturally, a caveat had to be made. Especially a caveat in spirit of the often incredibly dark and freewheeling humor the film heaped upon its audience. To perhaps view the finale as a sort of surreal, alternate reality in the narrator's mind seems very much in keeping with the established themes, and in many ways, doesn't step beyond the bounds of what the film had established. It's catharsis by anarchy. (Catharsis being the operative word in the reason, even if it doesn't fit within common logic's rhyme. )

Have you ever found yourself at the mercy of an #explodingshark? Was there a final movie moment that seemed particularly created just to amp up the vibes coming off the screen? Let us know!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Making Up For Missing Out?

In no way is this news any compensation for the fact that I'm likely missing the L.A. concert event of my year with YMO/Cibo Matto at The Hollywood Bowl, but the thought that much of my anime convention time is set to be monopolized by two unusual high-tempo import concerts means that it's time for me to prep for what'll likely make for an interesting report. If there has been any flicker regarding guest appearances at this year's Anime Expo, it has got to be the news regarding its musical battery which includes two out-of-the-blue L.A. debuts. Strangely, these are two acts that I have a) been listening to on and off for well over two years, and b) would never in a million, ever considered seeing them on these shores.

First will be the Yuki Kajiura borne project Kalafina, which consists of three vocalists in a wildly dramatic mix of anime-infused energy, and gothic melodies. Having originally been created for the Kara no Kyokai series, the project has grown into something of a beyond the medium powerhouse who have also provided songs for the recent tv hit, Puelle Magi Madoka Magika. There is a flare for the grand scale that is truly impressive, and as exhibited by this clip, something of a terrific live presence as well.

Secondly at Nokia Theater, comes the even less likely concert appearance, even if they are not even human. The growing legend of YAMAHA's VOCALOID has been something I've been closely following since roughly 2007. And while I still regard reigning software icon, Hatsune Miku are something of the Sharon Apple Beta Version, there's always been something of a grand curiosity within me to witness a virtual concert for myself. And now, it looks like the aqua-haired chanteuse will have her first US audience, and there was no way I was to miss something so singularly surreal.

For those still not familiar...

Again, how these in any way make up for Sakamoto, Hosono, Takahashi, alongside Buffalo Daughter & Cibo Matto, I have no idea. But there is enough potential for excitement and curiosity for this particular party.

Stay Tuned Here, Or At Anime Diet For Further News As It Hits!