Film

25 Nights With Some Movies That Caused a Temporary Ripple in the Buzz-o-sphere

Image from poster for Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

From the importance (or not) of the comic book movies to films with avant-garde concepts, some beautiful, some unbearable.

Dear Faithful Fans: You have happily devoured my trilogy of film notes on recent movies as I have dished out each new installment, more spectacular than the last. You now regularly ask me, "What did you think of this blockbuster?" and "What of that piece of Oscar bait?" as though needing me to put this disordered world in perspective. At least I think that's what you're asking me. It's hard to hear inside this bulletproof limo, and you really shouldn't rush out into the street like that.

In answer to your earnest pleas and sincere interest, not to mention my deadline, I have gone through my notes and "hand-picked" (why do they always say that? as opposed to foot-picked? nose-picked?) a modest 25 responses to movies that caused a temporary ripple in the buzz-o-sphere during the last two years. Now that a little time has passed from the hubbub and marketing and even the slowpokes have had a chance to get around to them, let's see how they stand up in the memory.

An Oscar Digression

As everyone knows by now, the most important movies made by Hollywood are based on comic books. If you fully assimilate this fact, it partially explains the phenomoenon of pundits fretting about the 2016 Oscar nominees' lack of "diversity". After all, the nominees for Best Picture only included two woman-centered Irish-Canadian indies, an Australian action picture, a sci-fi movie, and something about a bear directed by a Mexican, while the acting categories highlighted a lesbian romance and a British movie about a Danish transsexual.

Some wayward souls might have considered this diverse, but none of that counted, for "diversity" is a code for the shallowest form of human categorization and the one invented by racism: skin color, now described in politically correct terms as "looking like me". (Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio showing up at the NAACP Image Awards and chiding their lack of diversity because nobody looks like him.)

The absence of "actors of color" among this year's nominees tells me that England hasn't been making movies about black people, like 12 Years a Slave, and nothing at all about Hollywood. For an index of Hollywood in the awards season, check the People's Choice, MTV Awards and even the Golden Globes.

The most consistent observation made by Oscar watchers in the new century -- which has been objectively the most diverse in its nominations until the last two years -- is that Oscar voters tend to avoid the movies made by big Hollywood studios and actually seen by audiences. Instead, Oscar favors "foreign" productions and low-budget indies, like the previous year's Best Picture nominee Selma, while generally eschewing big-budget mainstream products not made by Steven Spielberg.

None of which is to argue or imply that there aren't serious racial issues in the film industry -- and Spike Lee has always been dead right that the key is ownership of real production power. It's just that the Oscars are, for several reasons, a bizarre distorted glass for trying to see the state of mainstream Hollywood.

While we're on the subject, I never saw anyone point out that the voting process only permits members to submit one favorite nominee in their professional category and Best Picture -- not two or five, and there's no central committee trying to be "representative". What does this tell us?

Consider that the same critics who jumped on board to chide the Academy also put out their own Top Ten lists, and each critic's Number One movie would have been his or her single submission if they were Academy members. If America's critics had chosen the Picture nominees, the list would have looked basically the same with the addition of Carol and Ex Machina -- no glittering parade of "diversity", there.

The Metacritic website has the collated list for all to see. Creed, cited by A.O. Scott and other critics who opined about this topic to Charlie Rose as an example of an overlooked nominee, and shame on the Academy, is #17. Why? Because exactly one critic picked it as #1, so it would never have shown up on the list of nominees. Same deal with the oft-mentioned new Star Wars film, at #20.

That's called math, and while such a voting process may indirectly imply something about which movies get produced with serious Oscar intentions -- as opposed to box office intentions -- it should give pause to kibbitzers who wish to convey how much more enlightened they are than the Academy.

So let's move on to the comic books.

 

Read the Graphic Novel, See the Graphic Movie

1. We'll begin, alas, with Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Form and core elements: nearly three hours of dumb dialogue (90 percent expository of the "We've got to cross the bridge!" and "They're gaining on us!" variety, ten percent macho and/or flippant posturing) interlaced with a dumb plot of robots that can't fight without knocking over buildings and cars and product placements, with the good robots now and then saying "We don't harm humans." No reports on collateral casualties.

Visual style: shot in the nouveau-elegant manner of lengthy traveling shots composed in depth for the benefit of 3D and frequently presented in slow motion, as opposed to the sublimininal hyper-editing that must be officially out of style if even Michael Bay has dropped it, and it's all prettied up with pleasingly saturated color palettes.

You see, Dear Masochistic Cineastes, we must give these films their due. Today's action blockbusters conceive gorgeous and lengthy CGI-enhanced traveling shots full of swift movement for enhanced 3D submersion. For even more dazzling examples, check Avengers: Age of Ultron, with its early shot swirling through a forest attack like Evil Dead Goes to War, or an aerial shot entering Avengers HQ and passing up through a glass ceiling, or an inward 360 degree track of the Avengers defending the crystal McGuffin against robots. Otherwise, it's one damn noisy thing after another for over two hours. In short, this is this the kind of film that's at its best with the sound off.

Theme 1: Macho men. Kelsey Grammer plays a Black Ops CIA guy going rogue to line his golden parachute while spouting about honor and Keeping America Safe, and Stanley Tucci plays the ruthless inventor-capitalist who has a change of heart after realizing he's been duped. Is this an argument about the security state out of control? Ironically, with Chinese cooperation, the film throws in gratuitous scenes of the Beijing authorities striding about declaring that they will do everything to protect Hong Kong even though they can't do squat. There's also a gratuitous Hong Kong martial-arts butt-kicking babe who rings Tucci's bell in a good way.

Theme 2: Science and capitalism running amok? The movie brings out the old saw about "some things shouldn't be invented", as spoken by Mark Wahlberg in ironic counterpoint to his earlier assertion of the opposite. He plays the overprotective daddy to a spunky yet clueless 17-year-old harlot-dressing bombshell whose Irish speedracer boyfriend is cast to resemble Paul Walker.

So -- and this the real head-scratcher -- could we spin the interpretation that the movie is "about" all this macho-ness and implicitly a critique, on the military-industrial level, of what also occurs on the personal family level? The father / boyfriend rivalry is presented as a testosterone-fueled hand-off of "protecting" the girl, and the movie doesn't appear to criticize this, especially since the "kicking butt and taking names" mode is echoed by the robots.

The most spelled-out message: "You've got to have faith in people", spoken by Marky to Optimus Prime, who must relearn his named optimism.

 

2. The previous, by no particular coincidence, is also the moral spelled out by Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to his 50-year-younger self (James MacAvoy) in the much better X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer with a few moments of exaltation. Both films begin with floating black blocks over the earth, a manifestation of literal blockbusters.

The time-travel plot has Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) transporting his consciousness to his 1973 body with a mission to unite Xavier and the young Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who's incarcerated in a Pentagon basement for allegedly killing JFK, into preventing blue-skinned firecracker Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from icing an envious dwarf scientist (Peter Dinklage) and enabling the devastation of Earth by mutant-hunting chameleonic transforming machines (hmm).

The best scene, witty and exhilarating, employs slow-motion and elaborate traveling shots to depict Quicksilver's eyeblink disabling of a roomful of cops to the tune of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle". Once again, the best way to see action is to slow it down -- and yes, this is another 3D-prepped project. Why doesn't he break the sound barrier? Let's not go there.

Halle Berry gets high billing for nothing much besides having an Oscar, Anna Paquin ditto, Ellen Page for spending the whole movie exuding concentration while holding onto Wolverine's head. Ian McKellen flies majestically in a cape. Is this the comics movie with the most Oscar winners? By the way, Berry typifies what African-American actors this century have done, and very sensibly, after winning Oscars: not make another indie critics' darling seen by few but the kind of Oscar-invisible movie that pays for the house and gets seen by everyone.

 

3. X-Men also has a hacker who learns that sometimes secrecy is necessary to help people and that security organizations can do good work -- unless down the line, the internal conspiracies combust as they do in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which argues against secrecy and security, or rather that they are opposites. This "dark" Captain, with its vision of a mechanical fascist "Star Wars" security state ready to laser algorhythmically projected miscreants from the heavens before they get up to mischief, is a startling step up from the previous origin film -- albeit bloated at 2 1/2 hours, of course, with the action being the least interesting parts.

It begins by seeming to polish off Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury (but you're not fooled, are you?) and succeeds in bringing down SHIELD, as infiltrated by Robert Redford's post-Nazi Hydra. Scarlett Johanssen is substantial as the Black Widow this time around, and there's an African-American military veteran with mechanical falcon wings called, natch, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). I forgot to mention the identity of the super-efficient Winter Soldier, but we can see that one coming. All is consistent with the comics' controversial George W. Bush-era storylines.

 

4. Unlike many, I was less than charmed by Guardians of the Galaxy, which combines Star Wars shenanigans with lots of noisy destruction and casual sadism, including on the part of our ragtag team of outlaw misfits. It tries to set itself apart by employing the same hip humor as everyone else, only more so, with '70s pop on a mixtape, comic turns by John C. Reilly, and a blue Michael Rooker, a vulgar raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, a tree voiced by Vin Diesel (say what?), and a cameo by Howard the Duck. Paychecks are picked up by Glenn Close for standing there and giving orders next to a woman who jots everything down, and Djimon Honsou for standing there and following orders, and Benicio Del Toro for standing there in fabulous furs.

 

5.. Even more depressing: John Wick, a steaming pile of bad-ass patterned after comics and video games and whose object is to radiate cool from pressing "Play" until knocking over the last expendable cardboard duck.

The titular bad-ass (Keanu Reeves, coming into his grizzlement), living in a fabulous glassy hilltop mansion, buries his cancer-deceased wife and receives her posthumous gift of a beagle pup to love (aww) -- until sadistic Russian ruffians (is there another kind?) steal his car and kill his dog. Oh no! This time it's personal! Their only mistake was leaving him alive! They just fracked with the wrong Mexican!

Wait, that was Machete, and quoting it reminds me how much better Robert Rodriguez does this sort of thing, and I'm reminded also of the exuberance and playfulness seen in Crank 2. John Wick enters these sweepstakes with, at least, a nicely designed sense of presentation, something against which its puppets, including Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane, can posture. You could call it "distilled". Or lean to the point of anorexia.

The making-of pufferies all discuss having two directors, but only one is credited as such. They're friends who own an important stunt and second unit company, making their first movie as a showcase for their choreography, which explains why characters never fire one round when five will do, and their curious bias for seemingly unnecessary hand-to-hand antics when they've got a minute to fit it in, and the hero's strangely unstoppable mystique. It's fair to compare this to film porn, with many more ejaculations per minute, and all man to man except for one gratuitous leatherette barbie tossed in for a rumble.

For reasons hardly obscure, this movie eminds me of Hitman, endured around the same time. Based on a video game, it's got an organization of bald assassins, raised since orphanhood with barcodes tattooed on their heads. Stop me if you've heard this one, but our guy does a job and then realizes he's been set up by the client -- a Russian president or his double -- and must now take him out before vice versa, while of course protecting a knockout prostitute and being tracked by a relentless Interpol agent who utters lines like "I just need more time" and "He set us up from the beginning".

To add character, Dougray Scott pronounces those lines with a Scots accent. French import Xavier Gens, shooting in Russia and Istanbul, makes it as shiny as possible, adopting a fluid formality rather than handheld jitters. Inescapable conclusion: routine and sadistic dreck looks better than ever. Hooray for style!

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