The Wolverine

July 27, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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When I was a teen, I collected and loved the “Wolverine” mini-series comics by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller; they were atmospheric; they were adult; and they were a bit heart-wrenching.  The film based on that mini-series has little of the first, virtually none of the second and is devoid on any feeling at all.  Trading depth for a blockbuster sensibility, Marvel has created an action blur with little to recommend.  True to so many modern films, the action scenes were filmed with herky-jerky camera techniques and close-ups that, I suppose, are meant to make the audience feel like we are “there” in the scene, but left me and my compatriots with eye-strain. I could not help but think of the graceful choreography of films like “Crouching TIger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero” and how much better this film would have been if it had taken those approaches to the action, particularly as the fighting styles are so similar.  Japan is a major component of the mini-series and this film does try to get that piece right, with beautiful images of old villages and new cities.  I liked this best about the film but it takes more than just a beautiful backdrop to create the sort of atmosphere that Miller infuses into his art.  Script writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank had an interesting idea in utilizing flashbacks of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to explore Logan/Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) emotional emptiness. However, this was not the movie for it. That story line ended up feeling gratuitous and stole all the energy from the story’s primary love story, the one between Logan and Mariko (Tao Okamoto); it was at the core of the mini-series but was an after thought here.  In fact, the script is a mess, overall, with too many villains (5 by my count), unnecessary plot twists, lazy contrivances and laughable moments (like surviving the A-bomb by hiding in a hole).  The ending is completely changed and robbed of any power it originally had.  I am hard pressed to find much here to recommend.  If you do see it, stay long enough for the additional scene that comes partway through the credits.  It was the most entertaining part of the film, by far, and had the audience howling with excitement.  It was clearly a reference to another classic, early 80s story line (X-Men’s “Days of Future Past) also written by Claremont.  I loved that story and am already preemptively sad for how they’re going to ruin it.

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Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

July 20, 2013 at 11:22 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

I saw this documentary primarily because I was surprised to learn that a guy I knew primarily as a character actor was actually more famous for being a magician and a card sharp.  Ricky Jay has been in movies such as “The Spanish Prisoner,” “Boogie Nights,” “Mystery Men” and “Magnolia” and on TV as a recurring or guest character on a dozen series, including one of my favorites, “Deadwood.”  So, I was curious to learn about Jay’s (born Richard Jay Potash) other life, including alleged criminal behaviors and connects with con men and other seedy characters.  However, we got none of that.  What we got, instead, was a mildly interesting introduction to various masters of sleight-of-hand from the past 100 years who have influenced Jay’s work.  The film has plenty of clips of Jay and these masters doing various card tricks, most of which are pretty impressive.  However, the best tricks are all described rather than shown, including one that did leave me boggling, “how could he has possibly pulled that off.”  It would have been nice to see these tricks.  However, Jay is (apparently) notoriously guarded, both about his tricks and his life, in general.  His entire disclosure about his parents is summed up in little more than the sentence, “suffice it to say, they didn’t get me.”  He shares almost nothing about his personal life and nothing about his fears, hopes, etc.  As such, the film is only fun to the degree that you do find yourself laughing out loud at some of the tricks.  It never illuminates and I left knowing nothing more about Ricky Jay, the person, than I did going in.   I’m not sure I could encourage you to spend any money on it but, if it comes on TV sometime and you’re bored, it’s worth a look.  It happens to be one of those shows you can come in and out off and have essentially missed nothing.   However, at dinner after the film, I was sitting next to a table of two couples who had just seen the movie; they laughed and spoke animatedly about the astounding tricks we had seen or heard about.  They clearly had a good time and that’s saying something.

The Way, Way Back

July 14, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

“The Way, Way Back” is a satisfying addition to the “indie” dramedy (heavy emphasis on the quotations marks) world of such films as “The Decedents,” “50/50,” “Adventureland” and “Juno.”  Some of these fall more on the comedy side and some more on the dramatic side.  Tonally, this film is most like “Little Miss Sunshine,” in both its strengths and weaknesses.  It strives for utter realism in moments of pain and poignancy but can only achieve its laugh out loud humor (and there is plenty of that) when it strays into caricature.  This is scarcely a criticism but more just an acknowledgement of the nature of the genre.  14 year old Duncan has been forced to go to the beach with his mother Pam, her horrible new boyfriend Trent and his teen daughter.  Duncan is awkward and shy and Trent is an ugly bully.  Duncan is miserable until he gets connected with a local water park and its manager, Owen.  Over the summer, he opens up, kisses a girl, finds happiness and some heartbreak along the way.  This could be terribly cliché, and it is in some ways.  However, it is also riotously funny and, at times, very moving.  Credit goes to the two screenwriters/directors, who also played characters in the movie: Jim Rash (known to all as Dean Pelton on “Community”) and Nat Faxon (that guy who looks vaguely familiar from a dozen films and TV shows, including “Zookeeper,” “Bad Teacher” and “Reno 911!”).  They seem to know better than most how to balance the comic absurdity with the dramatic elements of the film.    For the most part, the actors also do fine jobs.  Liam James (known mostly for his role as the young Sean Spencer on “Psych”) plays awkward teen very well and spends most of the film looking uncomfortable, at a loss for words and vaguely embarrassed for no reason.  As such, he is the perfect straight man for the other, larger than life characters to play off of.  To that end, we have an eccentric neighbor boy, the overly superficial pretty girls, the too-wise-for-her-years love interest, the boundary-less neighbor lady and the zany, irreverent (but wise) park manager.  None of these characters feel like real people but they do make for some great moments.  In particular, Sam Rockwell (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Moon”) shows his comic brilliance as Owen, the park manager, and steals every scene he is in.  Alison Janney (“West Wing”) does a more caustic version of her mother from “Juno” and has several great lines, including my favorite of the movie.  However, I think special credit goes to Steve Carell for his portrayal of Trent.  Against type, he also plays the straight man, here, and does so with gusto.  His character is such an asshole but such an utterly believable one.  He is what gives the film its emotional weight.  In fact, it is the most realistic characters that give the film any real footing.  Trent, Duncan and his mother, Pam, played beautifully by Toni Collette (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) are the real reasons to see this film.  All three characters are utterly believable and the pain generated between them is heartbreaking. Without that core story, this would be just another funny movie.

Fruitvale Station

July 12, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Often, the problem with watching a “true story” is that you have this nagging question in your mind about what parts are true and how much license the director took.  Then, there are films like “Fruitvale Station,” whose stories transcend to a “truth” that is larger than the events they are preporting to show.  This film tells the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, the African American 22 year old who was shot by a BART police officer who claims he thought he had grabbed his taser.  The movie wisely steers clear of that controversy.  Instead, it tells the story of a man.  Through the stunning script by first time writer and director Ryan Coogler, we learn about a complicated Oscar Grant, capable of great generosity, kindness, humor and impulsivity, selfishness, anger.  This is a fully realized character who feels just as real as so  many young men I have known.  For all that is lovable about him, he lives with a deep core of anger built out of hopelessness and desperation; that anger threatens to undermine his best intentions at any minute.  This is not just Oscar Grant’s story but the story of so many young Black men in this country and seeing the world through their eyes for 90 minutes is a powerful thing.  Coogler is a stunning first time director who manages to coax nuanced, natural performances from a cast of mostly non-professionals.  Michael B Jordan (“Friday Night Lights,” “Chronicle”) is fantastic as Grant and fills the screen with such emotional complexity and honesty that he seems to live the character.  Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) is equally wonderful as Grant’s mother and is heart-wrenching to watch in the final scenes.  Nothing is wasted in this film: every scene, every facial expression, propels the story toward its horrifying end.  Coogler’s earnestness is so present throughout the film; he exploits nothing and looks for no easy answers.  His use of a score is beautifully understated and, where others might have looked to manipulate the audience with sweeping music, he gives us silence that is far far more impactful.  We are left with no answers in the end because there are none.  Officer Johannes Mehserle (who is given no name in the film or the credits) may well have been reaching for his taser.  The cops were highly anxious, the situation was escalating and everyone (the cops, the young men being questioned, the BART patrons) handled it poorly.  Perhaps, he freaked out and grabbed the wrong thing.  We’ll never know and the film doesn’t even attempt to ask the question.  Nor does it point any fingers at anyone (the cops, Oscar, society).  It simply tries to show what it’s like for some young Black men in today’s America.  And, in that sense, this film is absolutely a true story.

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