The Wolverine

The Wolverine gets an A for so many things – for the expected (Hugh Jackman’s performance as the titular feral beast has always been spot-on, both in moments of rage and in those moments where he gets to express the characters trademark pithy wit) and the unexpected (it’s the female characters, Yukio and Mariko, who carry the day here; Logan gets both a convincing young female sidekick, and a convincing soulmate, and the character works best when he has both). The action is remarkable, particularly a fight atop a bullet train. When this film simply follows Logan protecting Mariko from some unseen threat, we have something that really works here, something that brings this character back into respectability after that… thing that happened a few years ago.

That only goes so far though. Because The Wolverine gets an F for some really crucial stuff: what is this film’s overarching plot for instance? There’s some sinister scheme at play, obviously, but I’m pretty sure I’d need a semester-long seminar to figure out what it entails. I shouldn’t have to work this hard (the screenwriters should have to work this hard, but not me) in a movie with ninjas and samurais. Something, something, honor, something, something, sacrifice… right? Pretty hard to mess up. The film coasts off of that alone for it’s first hour and a half, and it works tremendously. Then we leave our lesson on Japanese culture – and a good movie – behind for some old-fashioned comic book villainy. But who are these villains? Why are they doing this? HOW are they doing this? What the hell are they even doing?

I do not know. And I never will. I will never understand the purpose of the Viper character in this film, and now I don’t care to find out -I was happy to see her die if only for the relief I felt when I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with her nonsense in any subsequent films. As for the Silver Samurai… I understand that the desire not to die, to live forever, to be immortal is a powerful impetus to do some shady things; it will always be a solid motive for arch-villainy. But my question for the filmmakers is this: did they understand what they were doing when they had a survivor of Nagasaki leech the life out of an unwilling immortal being who had saved his life? I suspect they knew they were saying something: something about a man who had witnessed so much death seeing it as his right to take from a Western man, a man who could not appreciate the power he had been bestowed with just by being born with the right genes. But I wish they’d taken more care in expressing exactly what that message was. It’s not often we see the event this film evokes on Western screens, so to rob the soul of the one character who acts as our connection to that horrible day seems like it could be profound in the right hands, but in these hands it instead just looks desperate and mildly offensive.

Still, in sum, if you’d told me three months ago that The Wolverine might be my favorite superhero film of the summer, I would’ve said “Get outta here, bub.” Here I am, admitting that much of what James Mangold put on the screen rocked my world, so take that as you will: don’t come to Th eWolverine expecting narrative clarity (you probably didn’t anyway, so we’re already there) but be ready to cheer when those claws come out. The villains they slash make little sense, but it’s the slashing itself that really matters.


Pacific Rim

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, James and Charles praise Guillermo del Toro’s latest flick, Pacific Rim. Giant Mechs battling neon monsters and leveling cities. Go see this film on the big screen. You really don’t want to miss it.

Lone Ranger

It had to happen eventually. In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, a movie that both James and Charles absolutely despised. And here it is, unfortunately it has some great actors and actresses but their parts are too small or too awful.

Pacific Rim

Let’s start with the bad. There can be so much wrong with a movie that tries to find its soul in a soulless hunk of metal (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is atrocious, and it features soulful hunks of metal), but this will actually be quite brief. In Pacific Rim, manned suits of armor that dwarf skyscrapers and stand waist-deep in oceans punch glow-stick colored reptiles that would pat Godzilla on the head and go “Hey there, little guy.” But they are not the problem. Obviously. Amongst those titans and gods, some humans run around, screaming and behaving heroically and running; and tragically, they prove to be a bit trickier. See, sometimes they fight each other in hand-to-hand combat, and even though they are not mechas with swords, and even though they do not have wings or spit acid, the hand-to-hand ninja stuff is still pretty darn cool. And then sometimes they speak. Sometimes… Only rarely, and usually only as a release of tension, in the form of comic relief which is provided brilliantly by two scientists who bicker constantly about their turf in the theoretical/experimental war, and whose names may as well be R2 and 3PO. They are not the problem either.

But then, once in a blue moon, a human says something, and it is meant sincerely. At one point in the movie, right between two important climaxes, many characters – fathers and sons, adopted fathers and adopted daughters, potential lovers – feeling the weight of what is about to be brought down upon them, attempt to tell each other what they mean to one another in the way that human beings might. This is where Pacific Rim threatens to come crashing down like the Golden Gate Bridge after a bite from an alien lizard monster. It is in these moments – when characters, played by actual human actors such as Idris Elba and Charlie Hunnam, attempt to mimic humanity – that Pacific Rim seems like it was written by a kaiju who’d spent just enough time watching humanity from afar to do a passing imitation of the most stunted dialogue from Top Gun.

Pacific Rim would be a really great silent movie. And I wouldn’t enforce complete silence on it either – director Guillermo del Toro can keep all his clangs and clacks and thuds and whirrs. In a Michael Bay Transformers’ film, all that noise is chaos; it echoes off all those metal-on-metal visuals that make it impossible to decipher just who is fighting who for anyone without a doctorate in Decepticon history, creating a diaphanous cacophony of nothingness that is impossible to decipher but still keep some satisfied because… BOOM! But Del Toro, aside from a few nonsense fight sequences of his own, creates visual and auditory poetry. When he gets going (and he allows ample space to let his imagination run free), the city-rending, harbor-churning battles turn into something of a religious awakening. They stir.

Many will say, and have said, that Pacific Rim‘s inability to imbue any of its human characters with such life – with the ability to stir – turns the film’s mind-altering spectacle into mind-numbing spectacle. Too dumb to function above the level of smashing our cortexes into blissful surrender, many cry. And to some extent this is true; it is difficult to say what makes the action in Man of Steel – a much better written film with poor character motivation and growth, but hey, at least it exists – manipulative and dull and the action in Pacific Rim – which has a higher body toll, which levels as much, repeats as much, pummels as much – transcendent and moving. I think it might be fair to attribute this to the fact that Pacific Rim seems like it wasn’t so much “written” as it was choreographed expertly with an eye towards maximum effectiveness, which sounds bad but is actually great; Man of Steel, on the other hand, is a clearly “written” film, with writerly goals and writerly drawbacks, that puts little care into where it puts its x’s on the dance floor and when it presses play.

That is the beauty in Pacific Rim. The film largely has the decency, outside of five minutes of leaden “emotional growth,” to not pretend its aims are much higher than disarming viewers who would care to be disarmed with synapse-firing, dream-making spectacle. This film is not revisionist; it is innocently, blaringly unchallenging to the inherent nostalgia of its conceit. It would like, if you would not mind, for you to feel seven again, to feel blissful and uncomplicated joy in a theater seat. This is not a terribly grown-up motivation, but it’s a helpful antidote to the very grown-up summer cloud of Nolan’s furrowed brow philosophy that made The Dark Knight and Inception such resounding successes (and two of my favorite films of the past decade), and that made Man of Steel and parts of The Dark Knight Rises so fruitlessly joyless.

So why have those five minutes at all? Pacific Rim doesn’t just put all of its ammo into cool suit and monster design – it understands the inherent criticisms a film like this must face. Firstly, Pacific Rim may be, unlike Transformers, an ambitious original property, but, in conception, it still basically seems like a new toyline waiting to happen more than a movie. If not for the sterling reputation of del Toro, many would dismiss the film as Reel Steel kids’ stuff, something they’ll have to buy for Tommy this Christmas and nothing more. Well, the film ingeniously builds this very notion right into the complacency that informs its opening fight scene. I won’t spoil how.

Secondly, this is pure fanboy-baiting, male-driven spectacle. And Pacific Rim tries nobly to create a strong female character (just one though, she’s pretty alone, the only female character with more than a paragraph to say). When she goes with her gut and acts, as she does in a splendid quarterstaff fight scene, Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori is something to behold. And then (you might notice a recurring theme here) when she talks and tries to act in ways humans might when thinking and being respectful and communicating, she comes off as a wilting, bowing Asian stereotype that might play well in Asian markets but makes it pretty clear why she was featured so little in marketing stateside.

Its those token gestures toward humanity that make Pacific Rim a sometimes unpleasant experience, and worse, a sometimes bland experience. (Hunnam especially is a beefcake-of-the-month charm-vacuum, though Idris Elba is striking, larger-than-life and splendid.) The film may answer some critics by trying to build in more humanity, but it may have actually benefited from going for less. Pacific Rim makes some unfortunate passes at a deeply unnecessary romance between its two leads, and at character growth for its antagonist, and at nobility for its martyred leader, and these attempts do great damage to the scenes that feature them, stilted as they are by canned dialogue that sounds, perhaps in tribute to foreign monster movies of old, like it was dubbed in to fit into the limited amount of time that could be devoted to each line. (A sidenote on Hunnam while we’re on the subject: I’ve seen criticism of his accent. To be honest, I would not have guessed he was British had I not known, but I also would have wondered throughout the film whether he had learned to speak English as a child by listening to recordings of Rorschach’s journal on a loop.) It’s pretty painful to watch. During the film’s “most moving” scene, someone behind me laughed. I wanted to punch them, then thought for moment, and considered shaking their hand instead. This was laughable. The consolation here: faint nods at conventional movie moors like that tearjerker scene taint all of ten minutes of the film. A pretty bad ten minutes. Blissfully, the rest of the film, all two hours of it, soars.

Speaking of soaring, I spent much of the second and third acts of this film perched at the edge of a theater seat, mouth so agape, a kaiju could have flown in, but I will never forget one moment from Pacific Rim in particular: a kaiju, seemingly defeated, reveals something unexpected about its anatomy, and suddenly the kaiju and the mecha take off, high, higher, dangerously high. But the kaiju is not the only beast with surprises tucked away in del Toro’s labyrinthine monster designs, and so, just as suddenly, and just as gasp-inducingly, they fall. The scope of all this, the push, the pull, the perspective of it all, bigger than life, bigger than Earth itself, it’s all felt. I was virtually standing up. My seatmate had left the theater for a moment, and I had the distinct feeling of pitying him. Guillermo del Toro had just delivered his sermon. It had not been delivered by men, and it was not about men. This was much bigger than that. This was about gods. Gods and – just a teensy bit – men. Just the right amount about men. Mostly gods.


Fast and Furious 6

Start here: the car stunts and fight choreography in Justin Lin’s four Fast and Furious films are unassailable. They would be enough to carry these films to watchable status even without a solid plot or message to hang their hat on. But these films don’t just live “a quarter mile at a time” anymore. Once upon a time, they did, but a late act resurrection has turned this series into the world’s strangest, biggest diamond in the rough, a successful film series unattached to any pre-existing property, with a memory that now stretches back miles and miles.

The Fast series is no Letty, saddled with silly amnesia (my one big complaint about this film, in addition to Gina Carano who… not so much with the acting…); its connection to its past, the boost in the arm it gets from calling up various small characters from its past films to race another day, has only strengthened as it has gone on. That connection has bolstered a film series that is, in essence, simple (fast cars go fast), but that has transformed in appealing ways beyond that simplicity. It brings you in with the cars, and while you’re there, it actually tries to tell you something.

This most recent installment barely bothers with the pretense set out all those years ago – that this is a film series built around street racing. Now, this is a film series about family; the cars are a family hobby, a means to an end. Rather than being, like the pre-Lin films, a showroom for the newest cars or a jukebox for the coolest jams, Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 especially have turned the series into a powerful engine running off the fumes of a heartening mythology about a group of small-time criminals with a deep honor-among-thieves vibe who, over the course of a decade of hardship and exile, have gone from being loyal only to their own kind to being loyal to all humankind. The team of car thieves has grown and matured in their long sabbatical from L.A, to the point where this rag-tag assemblage of street racers and car mechanics is, by everyone’s admission, even the grudging endorsement of Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbes, the best at what they do in all the world – a loyal team of competent, soulful experts wielding cars as their tools.

That team’s sense of honor, their code, has improved first the people they have come in direct contact with (think Braan coming to the realization at the end of the first film that he preferred Dom, though a criminal, to his law enforcement bosses), then the whole city of Rio (or at least the part that wasn’t barreled over by a giant safe), and now the world! Dom Toretto’s team does nothing short, in this sixth installment of the now deathless franchise that once seemed to be hobbling to an ignoble end after only three films, of stopping a team of international terrorists from allowing the destruction of an entire city.

That’s big stuff, and the action, painted on the canvas of long European autobahns and even longer airport runways, conveys that; but ultimately there is nothing more rewarding in these films than the smaller touches, like seeing this patchwork, multiracial group of noble scoundrels, a self-identified family, finally sit down for supper at that rickety house we first glimpsed over a decade ago and realizing, as they say grace and express thanks for all they have accumulated over a decade of driving fast and living furiously, that the true appeal of the Fast series has been there all along. It’s been in that house, that neighborhood, that tanktopped mountain of a man, Dom Toretto, and his unbreakable love for those he decides, after some time, to actually love. (By now he’s opened up to so many people, and so many previous mortal enemies, that he’s become the world’s toughest softie.)

This is a series about adventure and Nos and car crashes, sure, but it also has an earnest belief, a stubborn assuredness even, in its philosophy of family-first values and a joyful embrace of life’s little things. The series has gotten better with age (cresting with Fast Five, and riding the wave in this thrilling installment) as it has gotten better at conveying that message, which, coming out of Dom Toretto’s mush-mouth, has always sounded kind of profound but now, as we reach the end of this film and see it all threatened, seems to really mean something.

Here’s what’s magical and almost groundbreaking about this film: Joss Whedon can’t kill off Hawkeye; Zach Snyder can’t kill off Perry White (and won’t even take the time to let him live, truthfully); Marc Webb will kill off Gwen Stacy, but everyone in the know sees that coming and can’t really be surprised by it, since it is merely a checkbox that has to be checked; Justin Lin, working off of no existing plotline or outline but his own, can kill off Han (and already has once), can kill off other important characters. And he makes it matter.

His Fast and Furious movies are the Moneyball success story of the cinema world, casting undervalued talent that the budget, which needs to focus on insane stunts, can afford. The models and rappers and UFC fighters and wrestlers and foreign comedians and aged-out action stars and Paul Walkers of the world find a home in these films, and, while the casting of a Bow Wow or a “The Rock” might have once seemed like a stunt, under Lin’s stewardship, the stuntiness of casting from outside the typical Hollywood star system has been quashed by making sure his actors (and non-actors) play actual characters.

And so now, after years of investment, something that viewers of John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious might have thought impossible will become an inevitability in the coming years – viewers will actually care whether Tyrese Gibson’s Roman and Ludacris’s Tej might live or die. And so they should – over three films, these two actors have earned that audience investment, and a new threat (stick around for the tag!) looms on the horizon.

From the very beginning, it has been easy to get invested in the Fast films’ obsession with fast cars and faster living (for people who care about that; I always couldn’t have cared less), but now we are invested in people and ideas too. It is hard to imagine a scene as human, or as funny, as the Fast 6 scene in which Dwayne Johnson and Ludacris get laughed out of a high-end car auction by an uptight, racist auctioneer only to get the victory they have earned, existing in the first Fast & Furious. Here it works. It is the raison d’etre.

And that embodies the spirit that makes Lin’s Fast films essential viewing, and that will make Fast & Furious 7 (seven!!!) one of my most anticipated movies of whatever year it decides to brighten. That spirit doesn’t make every film in this series well-made (some things can’t be fixed), but it makes the ones that are well-made, like this one, shine, and it makes the series as a whole one of the strangest and most appealing cinematic success stories of this young century. And if that’s getting too carried away, then fast cars bring down a tank and plane, and that’s cool too.


Spring Breakers

When, in a recent Facebook post, I accidentally implied Spring Breakers was my favorite film of the year, someone deadpanned back “Please don’t tell me your favorite movie of the year was Spring Breakers…” And it is not. In the days since Spring Breakers was released on DVD and Blu-Ray, I’ve seen a lot of like-minded hate for the movie among friends who had to see what it was about – I mean, this basically looks like someone managed to get three Disney-affiliated teen actresses and James Franco to act in a mainstream Girls Gone Wild film, so I can’t blame them since I had to as well – and have immediately regretted they’re curiosity. I haven’t immediately regretted my curiosity, but I’m with them in this: I’m not sure what I just saw. Now that everyone can get their hands on the film, some of the luster and mystery the film’s concept and praise invited are gone. In their place: “This is what everyone was talking about?”

Spring Breakers, if we could wither it down to its bare essence (and it could have used a bit more withering down to some sort of bare essence), is a film about getting good-girl Gabriella Montez from the High School Musical films into bed (or, as the case may be here, into a poolside threesome) with a dreadlocked Harry Osborne and turning this into a self-actualizing moment. That turns out to be both as captivating and as uninviting as it sounds.

It is captivating, in fits and starts, because it allows us some level of voyeurism, watching two once-teen stars behave badly and wonder how much of it is really an act; we can’t help but show up for the train crash, if that is in fact what we are going to get.

It is altogether uninviting because it does reveal (or revel in our expectations, since this is, we must remind ourselves, a fiction) how far they’ve come. And in seeing how far they’ve come, we might feel a bit of how far we’ve come. (How far we’ve fallen? How far they’ve fallen? Spring Breakers doesn’t seem to think so. The film seems initially to praise Gomez’s character for leaving the party when it gets crazy, as any sane person might do, but ultimately I’m pretty sure it sides with the girls who are, let’s be frank, out of their ever-loving minds. Those who sin the most seem to fall upwards into a state of blissful transcendence in Spring Breakers, which… okay?) There’s a very innocence lost, kicked out of Eden feel to this film, with St. Petersburg, Florida subbing in for some kind of purgatory which allows some to ascend to a higher plane and sends others to another place altogether. .

But director Harmony Korine makes you work to get there, if you manage to get there at all (I have the distinct feeling that I’ve got a bead on what this film might be trying to say, while simultaneously feeling like I’ve misunderstood everything about it on a deeply fundamental level.) Those who know Korine’s past work weren’t surprised; Korine is apparently not a very user-friendly director. Watching Spring Breakers, you’ll find it hard to believe that this is by far his most mainstream film. This isn’t a quick shot of hedonism rimmed with a sprinkle of sweetness making it easier to process, internalize, and get past quickly. In Spring Break parlance, this isn’t a drink you take and move on from. It will not go down smooth. This is a shot of tequila served in a jagged, neon glass. It will burn going down. The pleasure you take in that experience may vary.

This isn’t Road Trip. So don’t expect it to be. This isn’t American Pie. This isn’t The Hangover. There’s no throughline of family or brotherhood. (If there’s a message of sisterhood, you’ll have to turn your head to the side and squint to see it.) There’s no sweet reconciliation at the end. Spring Breakers is completely uninterested in those cathartic trap doors that give an audience permission to leave a dirty, grimy sex romp with a spring in their step. There is no cheap catharsis – nothing in this film comes cheap, not plot, not character development, not nothing. There will be scenes of topless beachside frolicking, but you’re going to have to eat your cinematic vegetables to get any sort of kick out of them.

Those vegetables come in the form of non-sequential storytelling, repetitive and pensive voiceover that frequently does not match with what we see on the screen, and strange, often affectless performance from the leads. Essentially, we now know what it would look like if Terrence Malick had directed Eurotrip – the strung-out hedonism stuck on a loop, the Red Solo Cup life-altering revelations framed as whispered prayers. It is unique and unforgettable and distinctly not a fun time on a Saturday night.

I’m not sure I’m a fan of what Korine does here, as you can see, but I didn’t get sent away from his rager on a charter bus back to squaresville for the reason I thought I would be. Look, I’ve been called a prude more than once in my life. I find the insinuation insulting, but it’s based on some truth. Those that know me will think I find myself distanced from this film because of its drugs and guns and embrace of the nude female form. If I had guessed anything would push me away, I would have expected the same. So they will be as surprised as I am that some of my favorite scenes in the movie are also its most perverse. One sequence in particular, which features James Franco performing a sexual act on a loaded pistol, is its own miniature masterpiece, the purest expression of this film’s kinky relationship with violence.

You know why it works? It is allowed to be a scene. It has a beginning, a middle, an end, some tension, some release. Korine’s montage story-telling delivers some stunning neon-tinged visuals and some deep strung-together resonances, but the method is not kind to the story or the actors. This film isn’t montage heavy. It is a montage. Which makes it difficult to follow. But not impossible. Actually, we see this type of storytelling all the time. We’re just not used to paying ten dollars for the privilege.

I have become a lot more sympathetic to this film since I have stopped thinking about it as I expected it to be – a rollicking party of a movie that would embody the Spring Break experience by having everyone in the theater rows standing up and dancing along, nnntsuh, nnntsuh – and started thinking of it as a feature length music video. Basically, what we get here is an alternate version of the crazy-pants video for Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” that is ten times longer and ten times more thoughtful. Watch the film with the same eye you might watch a new music video from Rihanna or Nicki Minaj, who release a new short film about parties and violence set to popular music every other month or so, and what Korine does makes a little more sense. His cuts back and forth between intense moments of realization and meaningless filler shots of partying extras; his out-of-sequence story-telling where we see a gunshot wound and then see how it is acquired a moment later; and especially his repeated lines of dialogue that act as this film’s repeated choruses, intros, and outros; these are all familiar to us from music video culture. And this isn’t a bad music video. I think it’s a transcendent music video. But it struggles to be a movie.

Maybe it would work better in that vain if it made more of the four female characters who are its ostensible leads – the film seems more than happy to leave them as cyphers. It is not our job to get invested in them; when one of them decides to leave Florida, we do not follow her back. We never see her again. It is almost as if she hasn’t decided to return home but has died instead. And in the film’s eyes, she has. This film’s main character, its focus, its altar, is Florida, not Hudgens or Gomez. Speaking on behalf of fellow Floridians, I’m not sure what Gomez’s character Faith finds so transcendent about a weekend in St. Petersburg (whatever it is, could she point me to it?), but the film seems hell-bent on convincing me it’s there.

Spring Breakers cares what the state of Florida (or the idea of it) does to the girls, not so much what they to do it. Since they commit acts of violence, it seems like they have agency, but that agency is only revealed occasionally, and that’s troubling. This impression isn’t helped at all by the casting of Disney starlets. Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens seem ill-equipped for this mode of storytelling, which asks them, in repeating lines over and over again while off-screen, to say them with different intonations, giving them different meanings through imperceptible changes in tone and timbre. Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life can pull that off. The Wizard of Waverly Place, not so much. And that’s not meant to be an insult to Gomez, whom I adored on that show in spite of its incredibly terrible writing. Gomez is a gifted comedienne, and Corrine misuses her as this film’s sweet, religious innocent. Recall that in their Disney star pasts, Gomez was gifted at playing sassy and mature and Hudgens was type-cast as sweet and innocent. Flipping their roles here may be indicative of where their careers are now (Hudgens, far from the mainstream spotlight, has less to lose going nude and going cuckoo, while Gomez, very much an on-the-rise commodity, may want to shed her child star moors but can’t shed them too much), but it traps the actresses far from their comfort zones – and far from where we’re comfortable seeing them. I envy them taking on the challenge, but if this is a music video, they sing the wrong verses.

This all resolves itself when James Franco shows up and gives his best performance in years. (Someone reading this right now just shuddered, but it’s true. Franco, who fancies himself a stoned renaissance man and changer-of-minds never comes off that way onscreen, always playing a chill dude who takes the punches as they come. It’s nice to see him making some waves onscreen as well as off it.) Spring Breakers may be a song about empowering the girls that stay in Florida to the very bitter end, stick it out and finish their spiritual journey, but Franco’s the one singing that song (embodied brilliantly by the Brittany Spears sing-along he leads in another stand-out scene.)

This is the ballad of Alien and his smoking hot, gun-toting posse. (“Four little chickies came down to da beach. Four little chickies got out of my reach. One little chickie got shot in the arm. That little chickie went back to the farm.”) Franco plays the Devil asking these girls to sell their souls for a little fun and a lot of money. This doesn’t make the girl’s stories very interesting because, aside from Faith, it’s hard to see that they had souls to begin with. Alien doesn’t do much to accelerate the process. But he sure is fun to watch as he tries.

Franco, more than anyone else in the cast, seems to get what’s going on here. Or maybe he doesn’t get it at all, and that’s why I like his performance all the more. When he’s on screen, embodying his role as a southern rapper who claims to be from another planet but also wants to claim all the material wealth he can on this planet, he makes the movie suit his rhythm, not the other way around. He builds a fully realized character in a film otherwise populated by vague sketches of violent, liberating female sexuality. The character he embodies may be insane and easy to make fun of, but at least he is engaging and psychologically complex and, in spite of all his grand pronouncements about greed and being bad, relatable. As the film’s last ten minutes make clear, Alien does feel fear. He is from this planet. He is a mortal man. His little chickies, on the other hand, maybe not. They will baffle me for a little longer. How am I supposed to feel about their actions? Am I intended to feel pride that they seem to have found themselves by behaving badly in my backyard? These questions will stick with me, and I don’t begrudge the film for making me ask them. I won’t soon forget this film’s depiction of Spring Break (forevaahhh!). I won’t soon understand it either.


The Lone Ranger

Fifteen years ago, screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio contributed to the screenplay for a big Hollywood swashbuckler set in the Old West. At that screenplay’s fore was the relationship between an old master with a deeply personal connection to a long ago injustice and the incompetent but brave man who can make vengeance possible by learning the ways of vigilante justice, by standing for the oppressed while riding his trusty steed behind a black mask. That screenplay became the well-received, fondly remembered Antonio Banderas vehicle The Mask of Zorro, a film that clearly adored its source material, those old radio serials and black-and-white television episodes about a masked man bringing justice to the chaotic and corrupt West. But it also wanted to bring a touch of that Raiders of the Lost Ark spirit to the proceedings, allowing some tongue-in-cheek humor, humanizing fallibility, and modern Hollywood pacing to spice up all that old-fashioned derring-do.

Zorro isn’t perfect, but it’s entertaining as hell– sexy (that swordfight in the barn, ay!) yet old-fashioned, melodramatic yet briskly-paced, able to laugh at itself but also respectful of the suffering of its minority characters. Some of that can be attributed to the incredible stunt-work and a great cast and score, but a lot of that credit goes to Rossio and Elliot; these two men, who also co-wrote the Pirates films and the first Shrek, have cornered the market on putting fresh, cheeky spins on old, dying genres: the pirate film, the fairy tale, and, yes, the masked vigilante film. (People seem to forget that, when Zorro came out, masked vigilantism wasn’t exactly burning up the big screen; the same year that Zorro was released, Batman and Robin seemingly killed the prospects of the superhero film for decades to come; in my opinion, Zorro was as much a part of making the X-Men and Spiderman films possible as Blade was.)

Zorro started all that. Perhaps in tribute, fifteen years later, Elliot and Rossio have co-written pretty much the same film. They’ve just pulled in a different pulp hero. In the intervening years, I think it is safe to say they’ve lost some of their touch.

I went into The Lone Ranger having read a lot of criticism of the film that lamented its tone, its length, and its poor quality. That’s not good, but like all of you, bad criticism isn’t a dealbreaker for me. I also hated the trailers. Still not a good sign, but the trailers did tell me one thing: I knew there was a chance that with this team, and this approach (hip-to-be-square take on dying genre), I might get something akin to The Mask of Zorro. And I was right: The Lone Ranger is exactly like The Mask of Zorro! If The Mask of Zorro were made with utter contempt for the genre in which the original pulp stories were told… And if Johnny Depp kept running across the screen in facepaint and ruining the remotely condonable parts of the movie.

The Lone Ranger is a deeply offensive film, and the offense has very little to do with racism, though that has been a much discussed facet of the beating it has taken. I will not argue with any Native American (or any human) who finds something wrong with this film’s take on the most prominent Native American character (who is not also a sexy werewolf) that Hollywood has seen in decades, though I think it’s fair to grant Rossio and Elliot this: their film does a fair job of showing that this Tonto guy, feeding his dead crow and nattering on about a spirit horse in broken English, is not crazy and colorful because he’s Native American but because he is a tragically broken man. (Though The Lone Ranger, in one of its few salient points, argues the two may be one in the same. That’s one thing you can say about the approach here – it subverts and humorizes genocide in the most insane, unkosher ways, but it doesn’t sugarcoat!) What should be more offensive, not just to Native Americans, but to everyone who likes movies and humanity and justice for underrepresented minorities, is that the most prominent Native American character in decades has to be promoted to the world in a film that is this astoundingly bad. And to add insult to injury, that character isn’t the noble center of an otherwise messy movie; the agent of chaos, the catalyst that causes the beaker to explode, the worm at the center of the apple, is Tonto himself.

Just as all the credit for the success of Zorro and Shrek and the first two Pirates films cannot go solely to Rossio and Elliot, the abject failure of the last two Pirates films (critically) and especially The Lone Ranger (in every conceivable way) cannot be blamed solely on the guys with the typewriters. Along the way, Rossio and Elliot have added director Gore Verbinski and movie star Johnny Depp to their posse… or more accurately, Rossio and Elliot have been conscripted into Depp’s outlaw gang as unwitting accomplices. Depp begged to make this film a reality – begged to have the representational Native American issues placed upon his shoulders, begged to retell the old myth with a new twist – and with the captain goes his ship. Depp made this film possible, and he makes its ruination a certainty.

Based on all this would you believe I liked and admired the first half hour of this film? Would you believe that, before Tonto and Silver team up to “bring John Reid back from the dead,” bringing with them the sozzled, off-kilter spirit of Captain Jack Sparrow, without any of the fun, mystery, or adventure that character surprised us with, I was enjoying the introduction of this cast of careworn Western tropes?

What I was seeing was a deeply square movie, in the way that The Mummy films are square but also kind of cool. This film had a referential respect for the history of the Western genre and an emotional narrative, told with care and diligence. What broke my heart was, the film knows it’s playing it mostly straight at his point, finding its center of gravity in the stoic Texas Ranger played by James Badge Dale. It consciously wants to be a classic Western up to this point so that, when the classic Western hero dies (and gets his heart eaten!), the classic Western will die with him, from its ashes rising a revisionist comedy with the kooky Indian sidekick as the secret protagonist, and the Ranger’s sissy brother as the stooge in a mask. There is a conscious decision to make a gold old-fashioned Western and then, in order to send a message, to just… stop doing that. A bad buddy comedy in a cowboy hat ensues.These two guys make with the banter, telling a whorehouse madam they’ll have to shut her down because of “health code violations.” A magic horse prances in a tree after an entire tribe of Comanche is massacred, and Tonto, fresh off mourning his people (not days but seconds later), gets a punchline. A bad punchline! The Lone Ranger gets his head dragged through a pile of horse excrement. That about sums up how this movie feels about the narrative of the traditional Western hero.

And the trope deserves some criticism, of course. It is tied the oppression of an entire repressed and disenfranchised minority in the same way that so many pieces of pop culture ephemera from our past (and admit it, our present) are. It’s not the message that I abhor. It’s the approach. Depp’s take on empowering the Native American in the Western narrative features all the balletic grace of a hippo in a tutu. And not the hippo from Fantasia. A real hippo.

The main mantra of this film is “Wrong Brother.” The film even retrofits the definition of kemosabe to mean “wrong brother.” And this credo is repeated over and over again throughout the film. “It shouldn’t have been you John Reid,” everyone seems to say, disappointed that the shrieking lawyer is riding around meting out justice, “it should have been your brother.” By the end of the film of course, everyone tells John that it’s okay, he did just fine, but it’s not true. “Wrong Brother” couldn’t be a truer way of expressing what makes this the worst film of the year so far.

Based on twenty minutes of this film alone, I will watch Badge Dale as the trusty sheriff in every Western from here to eternity if given the opportunity. Hollywood, make it so! It’s not that Armie Hammer is insufficient filling his shoes; the film doesn’t even try to make the argument he comes close. This is a film about the square white man needing to unlearn his selfish, massacring whiteness. Badge Dale, who, in his short time on the screen, makes the hero (not the anti-hero but the hero) seem relevant again, could never have fit into this film’s agenda, and that’s a pity. The film seems to think so too.

Depp’s Tonto wants so desperately to see what James Badge Dale’s character would have done behind the mask that it becomes a self-fulfilling wish: even if we’re not thinking about it consciously, we kind of do too. It’s one of the few times where the main character in a film doesn’t want to be watching this version of his story any more than you do.

World War Z

Unless you read as much movie news as I do (and I read a lot of movie news… too much movie news…) you are probably blissfully unaware of World War Z’s extremely rocky road to becoming a complete film that people could go see in a theater and stuff.

In short, Brad Pitt read a great novel by Max Brooks back in 2006, and wanted very much to turn that novel into a smart, gore-free zombie film that he’d be proud to take his kids to! Which was a foolhardy mission, as anyone who has read and enjoyed World War Z – enthralling, expansive, and completely unadaptable – can tell you.

That was over a half-decade ago; countless rewrites and feuds, and a whopping $200 million later, I don’t know whether Brad Pitt feels he achieved his goals – naming this movie World War Z is tantamount to a bald-faced lie considering how little the film adapts from the book (nothing…), and it’s not exactly something I’d run out to see with a brood of impressionable young tykes in spite of its PG-13 rating. But Pitt can take satisfaction in knowing this: watching the finished product, there is no way to know that World War Z was an overbloated disaster waiting to happen. This is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, pieced together out of pieces of pretty much every screenwriters’ idea for a big zombie movie, held together with duct tape; but dammit if the corpse itself isn’t beautiful to behold.

So why open this positive review with a tale of cinematic woe if it all has absolutely no bearing on what you can see in theaters today? I tell you about this film’s extraordinarily troubled production not to lord my trivial movie knowledge over you, but to emphasize just how big a wall this movie had to climb in order to enter into the warm embrace of my love, let alone avoid the withering disdain of my eye roll. I admit openly to being poisoned by this film’s dreadful adventure through the marketing grist-mill. I’ve never been more ready to despise a film. So let it stand as a testament to World War Z that, in spite of my marketing contamination, I didn’t just not dislike this film upon seeing the finished product; I adored it.

World War Z, a tightly wound thriller that had me on the edge of my seat and my mouth dry from Philadelphia all the way to Wales, is my platonic ideal of a zombie film – rather than a claustrophobic last stand in a mall, choked with sobs for poor Jenny who’s a zombie now, what Pitt and director Marc Forster give us is a big, world-spanning zombie epic with tremendous tension built across all its set-pieces, none of which require close quarters to be effective. That is until that killer third act maze at the World Health Organization, which was a late addition by my boys Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard. They swooped in and scrapped the ending of this film that was initially shot, which would have featured Pitt’s character being conscripted for years into the Russian army, only being set free once he won the battle of Moscow by freezing the zombies out (so very Russian)… and then discovering that his wife was sleeping with Matthew Fox now. Bummer… In contrast, the version of World War Z we got probably ends on too hopeful a note (the book ends on a hopeful note too, but it feels earned), but, by the end of the film, when Pitt says, in voiceover, “This isn’t the end,” I was whispering “Amen brother.”

A film I had planned to hate (that a lot of people had planned to hate) slayed at the box office, deservedly, practically guaranteeing a sequel, which I will be the first one in line to see. Ultimately, who cares that Pitt and Forster fought endlessly and bitterly to get World War Z to the point where we could talk about its triumph rather than its travails? Who cares that they spent $200 million dollars of Paramount’s money? It wasn’t my money, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about my ten dollars that I laid on the line hoping for a smart, taut zombie thriller. Best ten dollars I spent on summer spectacle all darn year.


Man of Steel

Much of the criticism surrounding Man of Steel – and there have been torrents of criticism, resisted valiantly by small pockets of praise from those who believe this is the Superman movie we’ve all been waiting for (a testimonial I would have agreed with based on the evocative trailers alone, but then I actually saw the movie…) – has centered on the film’s smash-bang-crack-boom last act. And that grand guignol of crumbling buildings and 9/11-reminiscent ash, which ends with Superman committing his one cardinal sin (though that part doesn’t bug me that much since screenwriters Nolan and Goyer never go out of their way to make that a “thing” for their version of Superman), deserves its own special circle in superhero cinema hell.

But my criticism can not be reserved solely for “The Super-Sad Metropolis Death Hour,” because by that point in Man of Steel, the film had already been tainted by a nomadic, homeless first act that should have involved epic, planet-spanning stakes-setting, but managed to bore me immeasurably instead. Zach Snyder’s vision of Krypton looked cool – everything Snyder does looks cool – from what I could see through my fluttering eyelids. All that stilted talk of a Codex and a genesis chamber and a phantom zone and of arcane Kryptonian custom regarding the criminal justice system couldn’t be saved by a neat-looking bird thing — it all drowns out any possible nobility Jor-El’s last stand could have held. It’s telling that Jor-El, in life a stoic, species-saving martyr, the perfect audience-identification character, is much more sympathetic after his death when he is nothing more than an all-knowing CPU that helps Superman and Lois Lane get to the next level when battling their way through General Zod’s Halo level of an evil plan.

Speaking of Ms. Lane, she shares virtually no chemistry with Superman, with whom she does share a pointless, unearned kiss at the film’s climax, prompting more shrugs than chills or whoos. Which isn’t the beautiful Cavill’s fault (he makes a fine, upstanding Superman) but the script’s – what is so wrong with the classic Lois-Superman-Clark love triangle this film ties itself in knots to avoid, to the point where it offers the ageless love affair between the two up to the audience without explanation or rationale as some cosmic inevitability rather than an actual attraction between two sentient beings? When that dynamic works, as it does between Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve in the Richard Donner films, it works in spite of it’s inherent silliness; and it can work like gangbusters when committed to. The moment in the original Superman where Clark considers revealing his identity to Lois and his whole being inflates to god-like proportions only to deflate like a month-old balloon when she walks back in the room, is one of my favorite in all of cinema. Ever. And that is saying nothing of the rooftop scene which precedes it, and is perfect. So yeah, Lane’s relationship with Clark in Man of Steel may not click due to lack of chemistry, but Lane does share immense chemistry with the audience, who is put in the strange position of rooting for the hero’s girlfriend more then they root for the hero.

Unfortunately, Amy Adams’s funny, intelligent performance is just too little too late for a film that has nothing too specific wrong with it except that it’s dull and rudderless and wastes an exceptional cast. Man of Steel had so thoroughly lost me by the time Adams showed up that no amount of charm and drive from her – and she brings it, the MVP player on a losing team, like Lebron stuck in Cleveland – could salvage what I’d long expected would be a profound (or at least profoundly good) moviegoing experience. The film was neither of those things, but that middle act of the film, before all the smashing commences, where Lois tries to figure out what’s up with this inordinately handsome man who can cauterize her wounds with his eyes (and has extraordinary success doing so in spite of objections from her very pragmatic editor Perry White – she earns that Pulitzer), is some Grade-A world-building and character interaction that seems imported in from a much better superhero film. Not quite “Nolan Batman” level, but at least what we’d get from, say, Captain America.

Still, that last act would have needed a lot of stellar rationalization for all that Codex nonsense, and, in fact, for all of the conflicting messages young Clark gets as a confused, sheltered Superboy from a sympathetic but morally baffling Johnathan Kent, to ultimately make Man of Steel work. And so, while the flying and punching in Smallville and Metropolis is thrilling and a sometimes-pleasure to look at, its great crime is two-fold: yes it goes out of its way to make Superman seem as un-heroic as possible considering his nonchalance toward the high death-toll being nurtured by the collateral damage from his Kryptonian throwdown, which is attributable to his Zod-smashing laser-focus; it also fails to tie a thematic bow on a movie that develops its characters in fits and starts, if it develops them at all. This film needed a character-motivated final hour that could finally explain once and for all some of this film’s deep but meaningless psychobabble; instead it got a city-leveling UFC fight. In Man of Steel, a thoroughly charmless exploration of reluctant heroism, the Metropolis skyline goes through more dramatic change than Superman.