Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 151, or "Internet Slap Fats."

In this exciting episode of the Void Zone, Nick opines about what screenwriters should be doing, Brit expresses his (unpopular) love for DC Comics, and Dakota discusses gateway anime.

Also, they review Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, Persepolis, and American Ultra.

Get it here or stream it below!














Monday, August 31, 2015

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation



4 Stars

Late in the fifth entry in the Mission: Impossible film franchise, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself sitting across the table from Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). She tells Hunt that he has three choices. First, he can capture her and turn her in. Second, he can take the “red box” and let her go, so that he can use the red box to capture Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Third, the two of them can run away together. It’s in that moment that I realized that the Mission: Impossible film series has become the perfect metaphor for Tom Cruise. In every single one of these movies, Ethan Hunt is disavowed. Then he spends the rest of the movie putting himself in grave danger to save the very people who have abandoned him. America has disavowed Tom Cruise, but he hasn’t given up trying to entertain us. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation makes me hope he never gives up.

As Rogue Nation begins, the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) is attempting to close down the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) once and for all. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt has discovered that a top secret criminal organization known as the Syndicate has infiltrated the American government at the highest levels. In order to stop the Syndicate, he becomes a rogue agent himself. The American government disavows him, and now, without an agency, Hunt must uncover the Syndicate’s plan and capture its members.

Rogue Nation is pretty good. The now 53-year-old Cruise proves remarkably spry, delivering a credible performance in an incredibly physically demanding role. Rogue Nation doesn’t exactly break new ground here. In fact, one of the things that I liked best about Rogue Nation was that it made reference to some of the earlier films in the franchise. The concepts of a NOC list (from Mission: Impossible) and a “rabbit’s foot” (Mission: Impossible III) both have small roles to play (in ways that are nicely understated). Rogue nation even manages to riff on the discussion of how they only need Hunt to do impossible things (originally brought up in Mission: Impossible II), and the cartoon silliness and brinksmanship of Ghost Protocol serves as the inspiration for the CIA’s frustration with the IMF here.

Writer-Director Christopher McQuarrie seems to have found a way to use Cruise (having previously used him to great effect in Edge of Tomorrow and, I'm assured, good effect in Jack Reacher). McQuarrie has also found a female star, Rebecca Ferguson, who he and Cruise should invest in. She brings a spark to the character of Ilsa Faust that has been missing from some of the female leads in previous Missions: Impossible. As always the action set pieces are spectacular and Cruise carries them out with aplomb and apparent glee.

The returning cast: Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner are really good together. Despite the fact that the Mission: Impossible franchise has become less serious over the last twenty years (a welcome bucking of modern film trends), I appreciate that the franchise has allowed its characters to develop meaningful relationships with each other that inform how they act.

If anything, Rogue Nation proves that the Mission: Impossible franchise still has gas in the tank. Cruise has announced a sixth and seventh film. There have been rumors since Jeremy Renner joined the franchise that he might one day inherit it from Cruise, but to me that seems like the truly impossible mission. Cruise is the physical manifestation of this franchise, and, given the revolving door of directors and writers, he is the auteuristic force behind it. Cruise may eventually have to give this up, but I’m grateful that he’s chosen to accept a few last missions.

Of course all these missions are really one for Mr. Cruise. His mission is to get back into America's good graces. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to let him. Choose to accept him, America. Go see Rogue Nation, and then rent Edge of Tomorrow.

From Out in the Void
Steven

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The Hurt Locker


5 Stars

The most successful films about our modern wars have tended to be overtly political (Fahrenheit 911), the memoiristic (Lone Survivor, American Sniper), or directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker). The problem with the overtly political movies is that they allow their purpose to overwhelm their plot (yes, Fahrenheit 911 has a plot, it’s about how an annoying fat guy spent two hours telling us how he defeated George W. Bush). The problem with the memoiristic films is that memoirists are concerned mostly with themselves and neglect the wider story, which means that the films based on memoirs have uninteresting side characters and uncompelling villains. The problem with the Kathryn Bigelow war movies is that there aren’t enough of them.

The Hurt Locker is quite simply a great movie. Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, do not try to recreate the war in Iraq as it is. Instead, they use it as a canvas to tell a story about the nation and the people who fought that war. It's as much about how the war is perceived, as it is about how the war is or was. The Hurt Locker centers on a three-man explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) squad led by Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner). James is a bomb disposal expert. On the surface, he’s exactly the wrong man for such a job. He isn’t patient. He isn’t careful. He isn’t studious. But he has something far more necessary – the ability – no the desire to constantly stare death in the face. James’ methods don’t sit well with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) or Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Sanborn is a disciplined soldier, and Eldridge vacillates between being too frightened of death and too resigned to it for much of the film.

Most of The Hurt Locker’s run time is devoted to these three men crammed together in a Humvee confronting a threat that could kill them at any time. In these passages, Bigelow seems most inspired not by other war films, but by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Each bomb James and his team neutralizes demonstrates their bravery and the bomb makers terrible creativity.

Renner and Mackie are superb. In many ways, it’s a shame that these two men have gone on to become so much more famous than they were at the time. In 2008, they were free to completely disappear into these roles. That said, you see precisely why they’ve both emerged as some of our best modern actors here. They deliver performances that run the emotional gamut, and, I think, accurately depict how men who are strong most frequently betray their vulnerabilities.

However, the most striking aspect of The Hurt Locker is its final few passages. We are jolted out of the Humvee, and sent back to the States. James has a house, cleans his gutters, goes grocery shopping with his wife (Evangeline Lilly), and takes care of his child. He seems able enough here, but never as confident or at home as he seemed disarming bombs in Iraq. I knew it was coming, but I was shocked at how much relief I felt to see Sgt. James strolling down a Baghdadi street in a bomb disposal suit once again.

As with all films, there is a certain necessary unreality to The Hurt Locker. For instance, I don’t think military EOD teams are autonomous three man units wandering around disposing bombs. That said, I do think that for a certain kind of man (and a certain kind of politician) war actually is peace. The Hurt Locker makes me think about that in the context of our modern conflicts. It provokes those thoughts in the context of a compelling story. It makes the political and the geopolitical extremely personal, which is why it is one of the best films of the 2000s.

The Hurt Locker finds itself on this list because 4 of the 37 critics listed it as one of the best films of the decade. No critics surveyed chose it as number one. It shares that distinction with Zodiac, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Incredibles, and my next feature, Ratatouille.

From Out in the Void,

Steven 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The Incredibles


4.5 Stars

The Incredibles is one of the best animated superhero films ever made. It is certainly one of the best of its genre.

Writer-Director Brad Bird postulates an alternate world populated by superpowered criminals and crime fighters. Especially noteworthy are Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) wielding super strength, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) able to stretch her body as if it were made of rubber, and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) who wields ice. As the film opens, Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, and Frozone foil a series of villainous schemes on the wedding day of Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Everything seems fine, until the people they save sue the heroes for the damages the heroes do saving their lives. Public sentiment turns against people with super powers, and the “supers” are forced to go into hiding, and lead ordinary, boring, unfulfilling, not superheroic lives. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl have two children Violet (Sarah Vowell) who can become invisible and Dash (Spencer Fox) who is superfast. Mr. Incredible discovers that his old friends from the superhero days are dying off, and he is contacted by a secretive billionaire (Jason Lee) and sent on a series of secret missions that may or may not hold the key to discovering the fate of his friends.

I really liked The Incredibles. It tells a good story. It pokes fun at the conventions of super hero stories (capes, villain monologues, secret volcano lairs). It crafts a realistic portrayal of sibling relationships. Most unusually for a movie aimed at children, The Incredibles paints a fairly nuanced portrait of marriage. It depicts the relationship as a potential fount of unconditional love, but also a place where the partners’ insecurities paradoxically make it hard to feel safe with the person they should feel safest with. The Incredibles is the only kids film I know of that credits both high school romances and mid-life crises as important formative psychological events. All of this character stuff is perfectly balanced with a series of well executed action sequences that steadily raise the stakes for the characters and provide appropriate cathartic release.

So why not 5 stars?

I feel like Brad Bird stacked the deck here. He doesn't seem to think much of ordinary people. He portrays the non-super powered populous as fickle, greedy, out to make a buck and unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. In many ways, the villain of this film is the ordinary populace these heroes protect. The law suits that force the supers into hiding seem unlikely, and calculated to make us like the heroes and hate the plaintiffs rather than feeling like disputes with any actual legs.

The Incredibles has also become a bit harder to swallow in the modern American political climate. Too many American politicians now espouse too much faith in Ayn Rand for my taste. So, when the ostensible heroes of The Incredibles speak contemptuously of the ordinary people and accuse ordinary people of unduly restraining extraordinary people because they are extraordinary, I felt uncomfortable this time around. No doubt, Mr. Incredible would say that I am simply punishing him because he is exceptional.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that these special people had very ordinary home lives and problems. I liked that they were motivated to use their powers to protect the ordinary people who they sometimes disparaged. I liked that The Incredibles found a way to be so entertaining and such a complicated text. It’s just so much better than it had to be in so many ways. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.

The Incredibles finds itself on this list because 4 of the 37 reviewers sampled named it as one of the 10 best of the decade. No reviewer selected it as the best film of the decade. It holds the same rank on the Metacritic best of the decade list as Zodiac, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and my next feature, The Hurt Locker.

From Out in the Void


Steven

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Fantastic Four


1 Star

Fantastic Four is a bad film. But, credit where it’s due, Fantastic Four is dazzlingly, fascinatingly bad.

The first misstep Fantastic Four makes is in spending most of its running time in the pre-Fantastic Four era of these people’s lives. We are treated to a full three scenes of Reed Richards (later portrayed by Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (later Jamie Bell) as fifth graders. After that, we get a scene set in high school that introduces us to Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter, Susan (Kate Mara). Franklin and Sue recruit Reed to the Baxter institute. There we meet mad genius Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), and subsequently Sue’s brother Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan). Together Reed, Victor, Franklin, Susan, and Johnny construct a machine that sends people to another dimension. Once they prove it works, Dr. Harvey Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) attempts to give the machine over to the government. Naturally, Reed, Victor, and Johnny want to go to the other dimension first. So, they get drunk. Call up Ben. Completely ignore their friend, colleague, and sister, Sue. And go to the alternate dimension by themselves. By this point, we have been with these people for an hour and they haven’t even gotten their super powers yet.

Fantastic Four is clearly taking its cues from Batman Begins here. They are establishing all of the ways that their characters become the comic book heroes they ultimately become. Except, that doesn’t really work here. The comparison isn’t really one-to-one. Batman Begins chronicled the way that Bruce Wayne became exposed to the realities of crime and trained himself to fight it. It told the story of how he developed the skills to be Batman. Fantastic Four, by contrast, tells the story of how a group of socially awkward scientists met and constructed a machine that sends people to another dimension. It's not really the same thing.

More importantly, not every story should be told using Batman Begins’ tone. The Fantastic Four are not dark and gritty. They have names like Mr. Fantastic, The Human Torch, The Thing, and The Invisible Woman. They fight Doctor Doom. Seriousness doesn’t suit them. So it really feels weird to have everybody wandering around the bowels of the Baxter Institute brooding about how we need new energy sources and how the world is being destroyed (more on the latter point later).

Moreover, loveable lug Ben Grimm/The Thing has a catch phrase: “It’s Clobberin’ Time.” Only this time, because Fantastic Four is dark and gritty, The Thing’s catchphrase was appropriated from Ben’s older brother – who used to say, “It’s Clobberin’ Time” before beating up Ben when they were kids. So, when The Thing says, “It’s Clobberin’ Time” later in the movie I got the distinct impression that the Fantastic Four had matured into bullies and started rooting for Doctor Doom to kill them. That’s just how movies work. If jerks who beat up little kids say something early in the movie, people who say it later remind me of the jerks who beat up little kids. Congrats, Fox. Your movie is dark and gritty now. Your heroes are morally equivalent to jerks who beat up little kids.

Also, if you’re going to drop the fact that one of your characters was adopted from Kosovo (ostensibly in the 80s), maybe do something with it besides make an accent joke. Is this movie dark and gritty or not?

That’s a nice segue to the other problem with all these early scenes. They are clumsy. They are supposed to establish things about our characters, but they do a terrible job. Reed is supposed to be some kind of child prodigy and mad genius, but he apparently worked on his machine for ten years and never even got the idea that he was sending stuff to another dimension. Also, the characters all seem to think it’s kind of a joke that he nearly destroyed the world at age eleven. That would be fine as a joke. I like jokes. This movie could have used more of them. Except that the motivating purpose of all these brilliant scientists was to prevent the world’s destruction (from global warming? I think). So, jokes about destroying the world felt oddly out of place. Johnny is introduced in some deleted scenes from a lesser Fast and Furious sequel (indicating that he is a fearless hot head). So, of course, Fantastic Four forgets this feature of Johnny’s character later in the movie where it reveals that Johnny is the most risk averse of the team sent to the alternate dimension.

Maybe even all this clumsy writing would have been fine, except that Fantastic Four doesn’t seem to have been very interested in letting its characters get to know each other. There are only the vaguest hints of the budding romance between Reed and Sue. I think Fantastic Four might have intimated that Sue and Victor used to be a thing, but I can’t be sure. There are some vague references to difficulties in Sue’s relationship with her brother. Johnny doesn’t like Victor. Victor doesn’t like the government or really any humans except Sue, but we never learn why.

The trip to the alternate dimension is also problematic. The boys go to the alternate universe without even telling Sue. That's messed up. The trip goes wrong. Victor gets marooned. Reed, Johnny, and Ben come home after being doused with various noxious other dimension stuff, and Sue, who tries to save them, gets hit with radiation. This scene is a disaster. First, leaving Sue behind is messed up. Second, this scene is so dark (literally there is not enough light) and confusing that I couldn’t tell if some or all of the guys made it back to our dimension or got stuck behind. Third, this is the first scene that really seemed to have fallen victim to the lengthy re-shoots Fantastic Four went through. Kate Mara, who changed her hair after principle photography, reenters the movie after not being invited to the other dimension wearing the worst wig I’ve ever seen. Also, some of the male characters begin to intermittently sport facial hair.

After the accident in the alternate dimension, everyone wakes up and goes through body horror at what the other dimension has done to them. Reed’s arms and legs have been stretched. Sue is “phasing in and out of the visible spectrum.” Johnny is a human torch. Ben has been transformed into a digital rock monster. Fantastic Four is onto something here. Body horror. The idea that these abilities manifest as mutilations. It all kinda works. Except that movie turns on the lights and reveals that its CGI is terrible. Literally some of the worst CGI I have ever seen. I’m serious. The CGI is Star Wars Prequel bad.

The movie then can’t decide how its characters powers work. At first, it hints that Reed is not in control of his stretched out limbs unless he is wearing arm and leg bands. Then, he immediately runs away butt naked. The movie definitely tells us that Sue has to hold her breath to use her powers. Then lets her have conversations while using her powers. Hot headed Johnny can’t wait to become a government agent. Ben Grimm/The Thing can’t move, and then suddenly starts moving with incredible agility.

As an afterthought Fantastic Four has a "climactic showdown." The team builds another dimension hopping machine and goes back to the other dimension (finally giving it a name “Planet Zero”). There they find Victor von Doom. He is now a CGI metal man who looks less realistic than the T-1000 looked twenty-five years ago. He has decided to destroy the world because humanity was already destroying the world. I guess it makes sense if you don’t think about it. They have an impressively uninteresting fight.

The team returns home victorious, having just inflicted the worst comic book movie since Green Lantern on the audience. And they are still getting a sequel.

I don’t know how Fantastic Four got so bad. I don’t know if newly minted director Josh Trank wasn’t up to the challenge or if Fox mucked up the production in re-shoots. Maybe the Fantastic  Four just can’t be adapted (previous versions of this story have been B-movie bad or simply mediocre, but The Incredibles suggests the formula's not broken). I don’t know. What I do know is that Fantastic Four is a very bad movie. It’s not quite as bad as some of the storied superhero flops (Green Lantern, Catwoman, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), but it comes close.

From Out in the Void


Steven

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Y Tu Mama Tambien



4.5 Stars

Mexican cinema and Mexican filmmakers took a giant leap in the 2000s (one that back to back best director wins for Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in the last two years hopefully means isn’t over). Y Tu Mama Tambien, directed by Cuaron and co-written with his brother was the perfect film to usher in this new cinematic age.

On the surface, it tells the story of Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna). Julio’s family is middle class, but Tenoch’s family is elite. His father is a high ranking member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (can you be an institution and revolutionary? – I love how Orwellian that sounds). At the time the film was set (1999), the IRP had ruled Mexico for an uninterrupted 71 years.

As summer begins, the boys are seeing off their girlfriends who are going to Italy for a summer trip. Freed of their respective romantic obligations, they spend the summer with each other. They drink. They get high. They go to parties. Tenoch’s familial duties eventually compel him to attend a family wedding that doubles as a political function. There, the boys meet Luisa (Maribel  Verdu). She is the Spanish wife of Tenoch’s philandering cousin Jano. They clumsily hit on her, and tell her about an entirely fictional road trip they plan to take. She visits a doctor. Jano confesses his indiscretions to her, and she calls the boys and asks to go along.

They boys hastily throw together a road trip, pick up Luisa, and set off for the coast. The trip has the effect of revealing each of the characters’ sexual histories and desires – leading to conflict among the boys.

Alfonso Cuaron presents the old Mexico as dying, strangled by the corruption of Tenoch’s family’s ruling party. But, even as that old Mexico is falling away, a new one, based on the same and older traditions may be taking its place. An omniscient narrator, provides us with footnotes, giving us an idea of the political and historical setting in which this all takes place. Cuaron mirrors the changing of Mexico with the changes taking place in his protagonists. The innocence of youth is falling away from them, and they are coming to terms with themselves and with each other.

Make no mistake, this film is raunchy. Especially the boys’ dialogue is explicit, sexual, and dirty. The title means, “And You’re Mother, Too,” if you’ve got any imagination you don’t need any more explanation where that title comes from (though watching the movie, you will get it). But it’s also funny, uplifting, and has a strange beauty. If the guys in American college comedies talked like this, I’d watch them.

I really liked the way that Cuaron depicts sex. So often, sex in the movies is expressly erotic, built for the puerile and masterbatory fantasies of young men. The sex in Y Tu Mama Tambien is neither voyeuristic, nor dirty. It is embarrassingly, sometimes painfully, earnest. The game cast gives their all in these scenes, investing them with passion and emotional connection. Bernal and Luna give performances here that presage their later performances in interesting work both in their native Mexico and beyond, but it is Ms. Verdu who gives Y Tu Mama Tambien both its vibrant life and its pathos. She evokes sadness, serenity, and sanguinity in a beautifully understated (and underrated) performance.

Like last years’ Boyhood, the theme here is that life is always changing. Because life is sometimes beautiful, like Y Tu Mama Tambien is, sometimes we wish it wouldn't change. But all our wishes are useless against those forces that remake our lives, so the best way to live is to give in to them.

Y Tu Mama Tambien was chosen as one of the ten best films of the decade by four members of the critics’ panel. It shares that same honor with nine other films including Zodiac, which I most recently reviewed, and my next feature, The Incredibles.

From Out in the Void

Steven

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ant-Man


3.5 Stars

Ant-Man is in a pretty good movie. Picture a cross between the 1966 film Gambit, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Iron Man, and you have a pretty good approximation of Ant-Man.

As all movies in 2015 must, Ant-Man opens in the 1980s. Hank Pym (an incredibly well rendered youthful Michael Douglas) storms angrily into a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and confronts Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell, who’s age makeup here is not as good as in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Howard Stark (John Slattery), and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) because S.H.I.E.L.D. has been trying unsuccessfully to replicate Pym’s namesake particle. S.H.I.E.L.D. being S.H.I.E.L.D. is unrepentant, and Pym storms out quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. and the whole superhero universe for good  - until 2015.

Pym (an undigitally rendered actual aged Douglas) now lives in enforced retirement. His handpicked protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) at some point between 1989 and 2015 took the company he founded out of his hands by force. Cross has retraced Pym’s steps and is on the brink of recreating the Pym Particle (the MacGuffin Pym was so upset about in the opening scene). The Pym Particle allows whoever controls it to shrink. In the wrong hands, it could rewrite reality (or so Pym tells us). Hope is convinced. She defects from Cross and aids her father in developing a plan to destroy Cross’ work on the Pym Particle and keep the world safe until Captain America: Civil War, but they can’t do it alone. They recruit a thief, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), and his misfit friends (Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and David Dastmalchian) to help them pull off an elaborate heist to retake Pym’s technology.

Ant-Man works. It’s a pretty good film, and in many ways I liked it better than Avengers: Age of Ultron. The relatively small scale of Ant-Man makes it feel sort of unique, and could have permitted the film to be funnier, quirkier, and more character driven than the rest of the Marvel canon. Unfortunately, the characterization all feels a bit abbreviated, probably because Ant-Man spends most of its brief running time staging elaborate action sequences (which are, in fairness, the most entertaining action set pieces Marvel’s produced). As a result though, developments that should have been shown to us through the eyes of characters, are given to us in expository dialogue. This shortchanges both Stoll and Lilly, depriving them of opportunities to play their characters making discoveries pertinent to their characters’ development.

Ant-Man also shows the signs of studio interference. Jokes that appear in the trailers don’t appear in the final cut of the film. This, in particular, bothered me. The jokes in the trailers were about superhero names, costumes, etc. They mocked the conventions of the superhero genre and Marvel movies in particular. Cutting those jokes seems like an unnecessary move from Marvel. This is a studio that scored hits with films based on an obscure title concerning space pirates and two movies concentrating on palace intrigue among a group of Viking space gods. Honestly, a few jokes in a movie about the incredible shrinking man aren’t going to hurt you. Actually, given that track record, what went wrong with The Incredible Hulk?

That said, Ant-Man does a great job of embracing its concept. The shrinking scenes are used to great effect, and permit Ant-Man to stage three stellar duels. The first pits Ant-Man against Falcon at the brand new Avengers facility glimpsed at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The second is a fight between Ant-Man and Yellow Jacket in a helicopter/brief case, and, finally, the third takes place in the bedroom of Lang’s daughter – where size changing is awesome.

I also liked the ants. There’s a weird B-Movie quality to all of the scenes where Paul Rudd interacts with the ants (I mean that as a compliment), and Ant-Man wisely chooses to give its ants characteristics – both as individuals and as collectives and includes them in several fascinating ways throughout.

Ant-Man is good, not great. However, Marvel is pretty good at learning lessons from the films it produces. I hope the positive aspects of Ant-Man represents the shape of things to come, and Marvel allows its films to go deep into their varying concepts, and be as funny, serious, scifi, magical, or earthbound as the subject matter requires.

From Out of in the Void


Steven