Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Man on Film: 13 Assassins

For the unindoctrinated, Takaski Miike is one crazy motherfucker. Anyone who has seen Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer, or Audition can attest to this. Having seen these movies, the notion of Takashi Miike helming an epic samurai film certainly piques one's interest. In the abstract, piecing together what the end product might actually consist of produces an extremely bizarre and mind-blowingly violent flick. In reality, 13 Assassins is a relatively straight-forward samurai film enriched with a strong sense of humor and a balls-to-the-wall blow-out of a final battle sequence.

Reality, for this film-goer, was a great thing.

In 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike has crafted an entirely kick-ass samurai film. He hits all the beats to stir up righteous indignation at their cause, draws up an evil and indefensible villain, and imbues his samurai with equal parts humor and honor. It is easy to root for these men on a mission, and the voyage there is enjoyable.

But the centerpiece of the film is its climax, and its climax is an orgiastic explosion of righteous kills by arrow and sword. While the hopes for insanely graphic violence are almost innate when speaking of a Takashi Miike film, this is not what one might expect if they have seen Ichi the Killer. While known for cartoonish, insanely over-the-top, and absurdly graphic violence, he reigns it in slightly. Yes, a ton of the Big Bad's henchmen meet their maker at the end of a blade, but the violence isn't like the final act of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 or anything. It's filmed in a much more traditional way, which wasn't what I personally expected from Takaski Miike, but that isn't to say it was disappointing. Really, with the exception of one ridiculous flaming livestock effect, there weren't any missteps, and he stays largely within the conventions of the genre in a good way.

In short: 13 Assassins is a helluva ride.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Man on Film: Everything Must Go

From the mounting queue of entries that need to be tended to, it probably makes the most sense to get this one out there, as it keeps with the theme of alcoholism ever-present in the subject of yesterday's entry on Charles Bukowski's Post Office.

Not to be confused with the superb Manic Street Preachers album of the same name (featuring this song),

Everything Must Go is an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story ("Why Don't You Dance?") from the same collection that the Robert Altman masterpiece Short Cuts was culled from. Adapted and directed by first-timer Dan Rush, Everything Must Go stars Will Ferrell as Nick Halsey, a relapsed alcoholic whose drunken transgression set off a bender that led to being fired from his job and left by his wife. After getting fired, he heads home to find his belongings in the yard and locks having been changed. With his company car then repossessed, Nick finds himself essentially left with nowhere to go but his yard with the remnants of his old life sit displaced.

As the days pass, Nick finds friendship with a new neighbor from across the street and a boy whose mother is a home-care nurse down the block. The neighbor, Samantha, is played by the outstanding Rebecca Hall, who imbues her pregnant character with a pitch-perfect dose of vulnerability, compassion, and loneliness. Hall is riding an impressive streak of standout performances in The Town, Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, and Frost/Nixon, and this one joins those ranks.

Christopher Jordan Wallace (son of The Notorious B.I.G. and Faith Evans) stands tall here as well. Ferrell plays well off of him, and their relationship definitely provides the film with its best humor.

As for Ferrell, he may not have the most dramatic range in the world, but for the most part he handles the role well. There are a few points in the film where his performance sticks out as being slightly off key, but there are no more than a handful.

As a whole, the film reminds me much of Steve Buscemi's feature-length directorial debut, 1996's Trees Lounge, a film I rather liked at the time. It definitely has the feel of a mid-90s indie dramedy, which one can take for whatever it is worth. There was a time when it seemed like I only watched films like Trees Lounge or The Low Life, so this may have struck a note with me that it would have missed with others.

If the movie does have a failing, it is that it woefully underutilizes Michael Pena's skills. While his role is more significant than Glenn Howerton's, there isn't much that he gets to do with it. Where Howerton's role sees him playing the prick former boss with aplomb, Pena is left to play what could be loosely termed a wet blanket. It is no fault of Pena's that the character is relatively uninteresting, but the conventional nature of his character's presence is disappointing given who's in it.

Without having read the short story that has been adapted here, I cannot speak to its comparison to the source material, but Everything Must Go is an enjoyable if slightly forgettable way to spend 97 minutes.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Reading Rainbow: Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Let us begin this post with a warning for the men out there: Do not read this book concurrently with Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro unless you want to feel like the worst person alive.

With that warning out of the way, this was my first experience with Bukowski. Weird, I know, but I finally got around to it. As an introduction Post Office was a perfectly suitable introduction. It seemed an apt representation of what I had expected a Bukowski novel to be. The bouncing around from one dysfunctional sexual relationship to another was present. Many trips to the race track were there. Alcohol was Henry Chinaski's lifeblood. Countless hours were spent a meaningless job in which Chinaski's apathy plays to great comic effect.

Given what I knew of Bukowski, this was an acerbic gem of a novel that reads effortlessly. While his prose is generally simple, it suits the directness of Chinaski, the first-person narrator. While Chinaski is essentially adrift in a world populated by fellow lowlifes and obstructionist bureaucrats, both of which serve as comic foils for his selfish and anti-social behavior.

While I wouldn't recommend reading Bukowski concurrently with Bunny Munro unless you want to feel like a total bastard, Post Office was a helluva read. There were more than a handful of times in which I found myself laughing aloud. Is it high-art? Probably not. But fuck Ulysses.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Man on Film: Fast Five

It's been far too long. My apologies for that. Having seen this well over a month ago, I can assure you that it is only lack of free time that has kept me from writing this up.

If one were to generalize how 2011 has been for movies, words like "lackluster," "unimpressive," or "shitty" would surely come up and with cause.

Fast Five does not fall under the umbrella of those descriptors.

Simply put, Fast Five was awesome. It delivers exactly what you would expect it to, and then some. Sure, it's thin on plot, but who gives a shit? There are awesome car chases, great stunt driving, sweet-ass explosions, and massive amounts of destruction. The already winning combo of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker (that is such a weird sentence to write) gets an infusion of Dwayne Johnson. As we have come to expect since director Justin Lin took the helm, this is a well-oilded machine. Where the first two Fast movies were clearly messy, Lin reined things in, tightened up the action, got the sound mixed properly*, and improved the franchise.

*Try watching one of the first two again. Now try watching them without having to adjust the volume every 30 seconds.

This is a huge fucking movie, and it works really fucking well. It's perfectly escapist, and enjoyable all the way around. Sure, it won't win any Oscars, but this is not a film that needs to be working on that level. One could even argue that the film sometimes seems to disregard the laws of physics altogether. These things do not matter. After all, this is a series in which the third film, Tokyo Drift actually happens after the fifth one. One needn't think too hard about these films.

More importantly, though, at the time of its release Fast Five was most pleasing of any movie that had come out in 2011. It was a dark spring with two disappointing Nic Cage releases and not much else. Fast Five was a shining beacon of adrenaline-fueled bombast in the best possible way.

Looking at the trailer, what isn't to love?

Now if you have seen this and haven't for whatever reason, checked out the Bill Simmons/Adam Carolla BS Report podcast on Fast Five, you probably should.

I think I speak for the entire free world when I say that I cannot wait for the sixth installment.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Man on Film: Your Highness

First things first, this is a David Gordon Green film written by Ben Best and Danny McBride. This means a few things. It will look good. It will be lewd. It will not be possible to have a trailer representative of what the movie is actually like that can actually be played in any theaters that most people are going to. Here's the redband trailer:

Now that looks significantly lewder than this:

Make no mistake, this is a lewd damn movie. If it wasn't, it would just be Monty Python and the Holy Grail*. Not only have we already seen this, but it wouldn't be funny now. Instead, Best and McBride did what they do best, created a hero who is a completely selfish, unredeemable asshole. They then throw the man best equipped to portray this character into the role, McBride himself. He is dragged kicking and screaming along on a journey to make himself better, and while he ultimately ascends to some higher level of honor through battle, he remains largely unchanged. This is what has made Eastbound and Down so great. This is also the part that worked about The Foot Fist Way.

*I know this is heretical, but I really don't see how MPatHG is as revered as it is. It simply doesn't strike me as being that funny and certainly doesn't deserve to be quoted as often as it is.

Your Highness also provides James Franco a platform to act comedically, something he doesn't get to do often enough. Hell, he basically went from when Freaks and Geeks went off the air until Pineapple Express without doing any comedies (unless you count Spider-Man 3), despite the fact that he clearly has an aptitude for comedic acting. Yes, he plays the straight man here, but his comic timing is spot on.

This leads us to the riskier proposition of adding Natalie Portman to the mix. Another actor much more well known for their dramatic turns, Portman's limited range when coupled with the extremely limited range of Zooey Deschanel put Your Highness at great risk of having two actresses ill-suited to hold their own in nearly anything because they have an inability to match the tone of what they are in because they can basically play themselves.

Shockingly, Portman did not bother me. Even more stunning to me was the fact that Portman was actually hot. It's not often that I say that.

As was the case with each of the Best/McBride screenplays brought to the screen, the film was a bit uneven, but this was definitely another step in the right direction. As was bound to be the case, David Gordon Green's hand at the wheel leaves us with a film that looks much better than most of its ilk would. This is much appreciated. Hopefully, this kicks off a slew of Green/Best/McBride films.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Man on Film: Source Code

Clearly, this is an attempt at catching up. At least this is still in the theaters...

Having quite liked Duncan Jones's 2009 directorial debut Moon, there was certainly cause for hope that Source Code would be better than its trailer may have let on. That isn't to say that the trailer was bad, per se, but well, here.

There's room there for a good movie, but more often than not a film with a trailer like this falls flat and ends up seeming to be derivative of substandard sci-fi fare. Thankfully Source Code is in the former grouping. While the film can hardly be qualified as a masterpiece, it keeps your undivided attention for its entire 93 minutes

While much of its success can be tied to its marriage of Groundhog Day to the dystopic world of Philip K. Dick, Source Code would not have worked without its leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan.

Here Jones has thrown Gyllenhaal into a role in which he could succeed, capitalizing on his  general amiability and boyish charm. In his other ventures into big budget fare, the characters Gyllenhaal was called upon to portray were either outside his wheelhouse or one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. In Colten Stevens, he has found a character that he can imbue with his special brand of affably manic desperation. For some reason, Gyllenhaal seems best suited for roles in which he's tilting at windmills, not quite insanely but holding fast to an irrational hope.

In the form of the female lead, Jones cast a woman who is somehow equal parts model and girl next door, Michelle Monaghan. Having held her own opposite such actors as Robert Downey Jr. and Casey Affleck, she plays well off of Gyllenhaal. Theirs is a chemistry that is instantly believable. The love story is earned and feels natural.

Without giving away too much, the film does manage to tug at the heartstrings from time to time--with Colten's phone call to his father striking a particularly affective chord--while exploring some interesting ethics of science questions not dissimilar from the issues at the heart of Moon. That Jones has now managed to make two science fiction films that are thought-provoking, entertaining, and rife with lighter comedic moments. Each of his films have featured likable protagonists trying to free themselves from the shackles of an ultimately Calvinist state of being, their fates appearing to have been predetermined. This makes for interesting films, two flicks into his career, although a different theme to explore would probably be advisable the third time out so as to not rehash those ideas.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Man on Film: The Hangover Part II

All right, I quite liked the first Hangover movie. If you need proof, look no further than this review. If you liked The Hangover, you'll love The Hangover Part II. If you don't remember anything about The Hangover. 
Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, and Ed Helms acting in a film that is beneath them
If you do remember the first film in the franchise, however, nearly every joke, gag, or plot twist is repeated in Part II in a slightly more extreme fashion. This is a bad thing. This is the filmic equivalent of The Red Hot Chili Peppers' album Californication--it is essentially an instance of an uninspired artist ripping off their own greatest hits, changing everything just a enough to make sure it isn't just a cover but remaining similar in an extremely unsatisfying and obvious manner.

I would spend the time picking the film apart, but what is the point? They didn't bother writing a new movie. Almost every scene outside of the prologue and epilogue were interchangeable with scenes from the first film.

All I have to say is that if there's a third movie--and given its box office numbers in its first week, there will be--I hope someone decides that it might be a good idea to write a second movie that could stand on its own because they failed to do it here. And I would love it if someone did because I like a lot of the talent involved with the series.
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