Monthly Archives: April 2011
Super is a different kind of superhero movie. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither) has crafted a story that attempts to deconstruct the superhero fantasy. In his story, the people that put on the costumes to fight crime are just as dangerous as the criminals.
Frank (Rainn Wilson) has two memories he can hold onto as his life’s highlights: marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler), a former drug addict, and assisting the police in finding a crook. He works as a short order cook and dreams of being something more. Then local crime lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon) comes into Frank’s home, eats his eggs, compliments him on his cooking of said eggs, and then walks off with Sarah. He’s been gotten her hooked back on drugs. Frank tries to rescue her but Jacques and his goons (Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn) won’t let him get anywhere close to his wife. Then Frank becomes inspired. He feels that God has spoken to him and instructed him to become a crime-fighting super hero, the Crimson Bolt. With a wrench, Frank patrols his streets looking for crime to vanquish and a way to thwart Jacques. Along the way he gets help from Libby (Ellen Page), a 22-year-old girl who works in a comic book store. She jumps at the chance to live out her super hero fantasies and elects herself to be Frank’s sidekick, Boltie. Together they plot to clean up their city and maybe enjoy some of the perks of superhero-dom.
Super mines familiar territory scene in other movies, the what-if scenario of what might transpire if people put on some tights and attempted to fight crime. Unlike last year’s similarly themed Kick-Ass, this is a movie that refrains from overt style. It does not portray Frank as a hero in any traditional sense. Gunn takes great pains to showcase the frayed mental state of his main character. Frank is troubled, seriously troubled. His attempts to escape his reality are borderline dangerous and his violent attacks are without warrant. I watched this movie shortly after seeing the suitable violent Hobo with a Shotgun (good pairing, folks), and the tone of the violence between the two films was starkly different. Hobo‘s violence is meant to make you laugh; Super is meant to make you wince, then laugh in a “Oh my God” kind of alarm. In Super, the extreme bouts of violence, which are not as prevalent as in Hobo, are meant to make you think how stunningly dangerous Frank and Libby are. When somebody cuts in line at a movie theater, the rest of the people react in disgruntled anger. But Frank goes into his car, changes his clothes, comes back as the Crimson Bolt and declares, “You don’t cut in line,” and strikes the guilty party across the face with his trusted wrench. The crowd is freaked out, naturally. These revenge fantasies are taken to the limits, and Frank has decided that everyone deserves the same punishment for breaking the rules of society whether they be a drug dealer or a line jumper (“You don’t butt in line! You don’t steal! You don’t molest little children! You don’t deal drugs! The rules haven’t changed!”). Frank follows in the same vein of disturbed social justice as Travis Bickle.
The characters are played straight, which only highlights their demented oddball qualities even more. Wilson is a strong comedic actor as he showcases week after week on TVs The Office. He’s always had something of a unique “off” quality to him, be it presence or looks or demeanor. It allows him to slip into cracked characters so easily. Frank is a troubled individual, but there’s something sympathetic about his plight to finally assert himself in the world and stand up to forces that he feels have victimized him. He’s a sad guy, lonely, deeply insecure, feels impotent to the world, and yet he can put on a costume and work out his varied psychological issues. Wilson can be terrifying, deadpanned hilarious, and even potentially touching as he desperately seeks a life filled with moments he can be proud of.
But it’s the little firecracker that is Page (Juno, Inception) that makes Super come alive with risk. Page’s performance is bristling with uncontrollable energy; she practically shakes with excitement over becoming a superhero sidekick and leaving her boring reality. Then, when they actually do kill bad guys, she jumps around, taunting at the top of her voice, chuckling at a level of violence that should be disquieting to most normal human beings. That’s because Page, in particular, has tapped into her character’s manic wish-fulfillment role-playing persona. What would faze people makes me laugh and hop around in impish joy, because she is laying out her idea of justice. And Page is joyous to watch. She’s so excited onscreen that her words practically trip over themselves. And then there’s the superhero sexual angle. This is the first movie, by far, where I ever viewed the elfin actress in a sexual manner. And with Gunn’s film being what it is, prepare for some strange discomfort. Libby tries to seduce her superhero partner into being a partner of a different sort, and she leaves the sidekick suit on.
The tone is meant to make you squirm and laugh under your breath through gritted teeth. Seeing Frank legitimately hurt people can be funny in a bleak sense, and the delusions of the main characters and their inept execution as superheroes certainly adds plenty of chuckles. When Frank tells his newest sidekick that they’re going to fight crime, she’s bouncing off the walls in happiness. That is until she discovers “fighting crime” means sitting in an alley and just waiting for crime to materialize. “This is so boring,” she groans. Frank’s oft-repeated catch phrase of empowerment, while swinging his wrench of justice, is: “Shut up, crime!” But then he later starts to reconsider his place in the order of society, reflecting upon his brute force actions and whether he too has become a criminal in the pursuit of battling evil (“How can I tell crime to shut up if I have to shut up?”). The side stories involving the evangelical TV superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) are a hoot. They’re even funnier when you consider that Frank uses these outlandish bits of corny Christian message-delivery as confirmation from God. For those looking for some Kick-Ass kicks, they will be sorely disappointed until the violent confrontation between good (Frank and Libby?) vs. evil (Jacques and his minions).
Super isn’t so much of a superhero parody as a morally queasy, crazy, discomforting comedy of the darkest sort. Gunn’s film shows that people with unchecked superhero fantasies can be just as dangerous as the criminals they seek to penalize. Gunn de-romanticizes the concept of vigilantism. Wilson and Page make a fun pair of superheroes with a few screws loose themselves. This is a different kind of superhero movie, the type that shows how dangerous and ridiculous and insane the fantasy can be in a real world where the bad guys have guns and a short fuse. Gunn’s Troma-fied super story has plenty of dark laughs, uncomfortable moments, and nutball characters. I don’t even fully know what to think about the film. Do I really like this? Am I supposed to? Is this all entertaining or just uncomfortable? Is it an entertaining form of discomfort? Does the ending, which aims for emotion, work, or has the film burned too many bridges and fried too many nerves to attempt something tonally different? Super probably won’t win any new converts to the genre, and I imagine its bleak laughs will push many away, but the film also has a car-crash watchability. I do not mean that in a backhanded way. Super keeps you watching but you don’t know if you want to.
Nate’s Grade: B
Only Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn, Grizzly Man) would make a feature-length documentary about doodles on a cave wall. But hold on, those aren’t just any doodles. In the recently discovered Chauvet caves in southern France, explorers discovered cave paintings from humankind’s prehistoric ancestors. The pristine paintings are 30,000 years old, shockingly twice as old as the next oldest cave painting. That means these remarkable displays are the oldest artwork in human history and a great insight into mankind’s beginning; Herzog dubs the cave “the place where the human soul was born.” Herzog was given special permission to film inside the cramped cave, and to share the experience he shot with 3-D cameras. The theatrical experience comes alive with the 3-D, watching the rippling contours of the cave walls, finding that our prehistoric artists actually used the topography of the cave intentionally (abstract thought from long ago). The movie itself is a bit dry and Herzog is prone to ramble on melodramatic pontification, but the real star is the art. It reopens our ideas of life 30,000 years prior. The artwork is also far more sophisticated than you may be assuming. Due to the limitations of shooting, Herzog relies on several talking heads to fill us in on historical/archeological contexts, but it’s never enough. You hunger for more information that the movie ultimately never dishes. But Herzog has given the world a cultural treat, an artifact to remind us about our shared history and the significance of art to humanity.
Nate’s Grade: B
Would you believe at no point does the film Water for Elephants come close to explaining its title? I have never read the best-selling 2007 novel, where I’m sure it’s given some glancing explanation; so allow me to thus pontificate. Rosie the elephant is given tubs of whiskey at several points in the movie, which she happily laps up thanks to her prominent proboscis. So does that mean that the “water” for elephants is whiskey? If that’s the case, then this is really a tale of dangerous enabling. But then again, how do you tell a four-ton pachyderm that she’s cut off?
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is one exam away from becoming a licensed vet from Cornell in 1931 when he’s delivered some tragic news. His Polish immigrant parents died in a car accident. Distraught, Jacob runs away and hops onto a passing train, stumbling upon a crew of circus performers. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus, led by the fiery August (Christoph Waltz). He’s about to be thrown off the train when he panics and screams that he’s a vet. August hires the kid as the team’s newest vet and Jacob finds animals that are in bad shape and pushed to their limits. He recommends a mercy killing for the main attraction, a white horse that the boss’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), performs upon. He takes some initiative and puts the horse out, despite August’s wishes. Lucky for them all, they find a new star attraction – Rosie the elephant. Robert doesn’t know the first thing about elephants, or “bulls” as they’re referred to by performers, but he’s tasked with getting the creature ready to perform or else everyone will be destitute. The man has a way with pachyderms, and the Benzini Brothers experience a windfall of new business, looking to take on Ringling Brothers. But the whole time, Jacob is making moon eyes at the boss’s wife, despite everyone telling him at every turn not to.
The biggest issue this movie has is that the trio of main characters all feel like they exist in separate movies. There is zero chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon, further dampening their lukewarm romance. Robert is a character defined by being young and having a moral center. He’s not a person so much as an alternative. Marlena is the damsel very distressed, and Witherspoon plays her part all in all slow cock-eyed glances. If I had to pick one of the three, I’d choose to go with August’s version of the story just because he’s a more interesting character than our do-gooding Jacob. August is a huckster who needs to take care of a caravan of drifters and sell them to the public as the stuff of dream and legend. He has some charisma, he’s constantly leveraged against debts, and he is pressured to keep things afloat and to keep people from mutinying. This is beyond the heyday of circuses, so he knows that too many shows with too few people means that his troupe will be picked apart by circus carpetbaggers. You actually start to empathize with him at turns, and then he goes off and beats animals or his wife and that’s that. August is an interesting, vulnerable, flawed character, and he’s given the thankless role of being setup as sneering villain. I would have rather watched August try and keep his deteriorating circus together than watch another tired romantic triangle.
The romance that so much rides on is about as sure-footed as a drunken elephant. Part of this is the failure of Pattinson to deliver a performance that doesn’t feel wooden and artificial, as if he’s posing more than acting. But the romance, which dominates the film’s narrative, is given such scant reasoning that it expects the audience to simply fill in the blanks. He’s a young, good-looking guy who loves animals. She loves animals. Her husband is a jerk, so what’s the problem? Naturally, she’d just run to whatever available catch she could find to escape her hell so anything that delves into more character detail would be a waste of time, right? The movie seems to think so. The love triangle all inhabit very rigidly defined parts. Just because a woman is married to a nasty guy doesn’t mean I instantly want her to get together with just any alternative. Sure this lady deserves to be treated better, but just because a film presents “Option B,” and that option happens to set teenage girls aflutter, doesn’t mean I’m rooting for “Option B” just because it’s not “Option A.” That’s not enough for me to make a satisfying romance, but that’s all Water for Elephants has its aim set on. I need more effort, movie. It’s no surprise that the romantic moments are the weakest parts of the film.
The real star of the movie is Rosie the elephant. She’s a natural performer and she’s got more presence than Witherspoon. I needed more moments with Rosie. After a somewhat boring first act, I started wishing that Rosie would replace someone in this dull love triangle. Imagine how much more interesting this movie would be if it was the heartbreaking story of one man, on woman, and one elephant. Maybe Jacob likes fat-bottomed girls. For animal lovers, there are some wince-inducing sequences of animal cruelty, mostly at the hands of the temperamental August.
The very opening sets the story up for a colossal disaster in the end, and the fact that we are not delivered disaster is a disaster of storytelling (too much?). I’ll try and keep the spoilers in a general sense without going into specifics. The film is bookended by the framing device of Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) leaving his nursing home to see a circus and tell his life’s story. During his conversation with a circus leader (Paul Schneider), the young man is taken aback when Old Jacob reveals he was apart of the Benzini Brothers troupe when “it” happened. We’re told that it’s like the third biggest circus disaster in history and it has reverberated through decades. I’m set up for something memorable. I’m set up for a tragic ending, likely involving Marlena so that their love will forever have that tinge of unrequited longing. Then when we do eventually head to our big moment in the big top, well it’s far from memorable. Once you assess the ending, you realize that there is very little to make it number three on history’s lists of circus-related mayhem. If this stuff registered as number three, what the hell was number four? A clown catching his hair on fire? And then the movie carries on to some ludicrously happy ending, which seemed tonally inappropriate given the mood of the film and the poorly written romance between Jacob and Marlena. I was prepared for something operatic and terrible, and skimping out on that after an exasperated setup makes me feel hoodwinked, like listening to August bark about the greatest sights and sounds imaginable when they’re all just a trick. Something tells me that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You) was not intending to add some meta commentary on how his story is built for dissatisfaction.
Water for Elephants is a watered-down romance that flounders thanks to three different actors acting like they’re in three different movies. Also, it doesn’t help your romance when so little work is put into making young people fall in love. There are fascinating circus-related tidbits that make me wish the movie was more Depression era circus drama than Depression era circus romance. It’s a handsome enough movie from a technical standpoint, and it has some points of interest and some interesting characters, but its shackled to such a weightless and naïve love story. This movie was described by many as an “old fashioned” kind of film, and generally that can be construed as a warning signal. When people dub something “old fashioned” it can tend to mean “boring except to older people.” It just so happens that my screening of the film was an open caption screening, which attracted dozens of our nation’s elderly and hearing impaired. I didn’t so much mind having grown up with subtitled foreign films. But one delightful accident of seeing this open captioned screening was that they captioned everything. Every sound, every offhand piece of dialogue that would ordinarily go unnoticed and undetected. So now I got to see, as subtitle form, such discoveries as Guy in Background saying, “Hey pick that up,” and Other Guy in Background responding, “Okay. Put it where?” It was more exciting than what was going on between Jacob and Marlena. Now let’s get that elephant drunk!
Nate’s Grade: C
After two stellar movies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), writer/director Thomas McCarthy has proven that he may be one of the greatest humanist voices working in cinema today. He writes wonderful stories about people who find connections via unorthodox family units. McCarthy can spin bizarre elements into deeply felt human dramas. Win Win is another hodge-podge of storytelling elements. It follows the life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a midwestern lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to get by. Then a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer in his acting debut) lands on his doorstop looking to see his grandfather in Mike’s guardianship. The kid also happens to be a gangly wrestling phenom. Things are going great for Mike, that is, until the kid’s mother comes looking for him and wants him back. Win Win assembles a great group of flawed, empathetic, relatable characters that make conflicted choices that they then have to abate. Giamatti is reliably fantastic as the center of McCarthy’s humanist universe. He can communicate so much despair and relief just with his expressions. Teamed up with a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, and Jeffrey Tambor, the movie works best when you can just sit back and take in great actors relishing playing great roles. Win Win doesn’t all come together in the end like other McCarthy films; there’s definitely a missing ingredient feeling to the movie. Shaffer’s limitations as an actor hamper some of the later dramatic moments. The end is satisfying, but I felt like I should have felt more. While it doesn’t strike the same seamless balance of comedy and drama as The Station Agent, this is certainly a film that should be winning for most audiences.
Nate’s Grade: B+
We all seem to love child prodigies. The concept of someone so small doing something well ahead of their years seems to fascinate our minds. I suppose the same holds true for professional killers. We all seem smitten with teenage depiction of super-powered killing machines. Last year presented Kick-Ass whose real star was the adolescent Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz-Grace), pint-sized reaper of carnage. Then there’s River from Serenity, Gogo from Kill Bill: Volume One, the ladies of Sucker Punch, the Heavenly Creatures girls (at least this one is based on a true story), and pretty much half the cast of Battle Royale. Just wait until The Hunger Games comes to screens in 2012, built upon the premise of 12-18-year-olds fighting to the death on national television (so the premise is almost exactly Battle Royale). We love our innocence mixed with ironic cynicism. Along comes Hanna, the tale of another teenage girl leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a sixteen-year-old girl living above the Arctic Circle with her father, Erik (Eric Bana). She’s been in survival mode all of her life, preparing for a day when she would finally break free and seek vengeance. CIA Agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) killed Hanna’s mother and has been lying in wait to finish the job, eliminating the rest of the family. Erik has taught his daughter well to think on her feet, master several languages, and become an excellent marksman/fighter. Hanna makes the choice to set their plan into motion. She triggers a device that signals to the CIA where they are. Marissa sends a crew to pick up Hanna and Erik, but only finding the girl. Once in an underground CIA compound, Hanna turns her focus on Marissa, killing her double (good call, lady), and breaking out of the compound. She finds that she’s been taken to Morocco. Fortunately, a family is traveling through the land and Hanna can catch a ride before she meets up with dear old dad in Berlin. Marissa sets out on a manhunt to find Erik. She hires a group of German criminals (led by Tom Hollander) to retrieve Hanna (“I need you to do things my agency will not let me do,” she reasons). Everyone is on a crash course to Berlin, where Hanna’s mysterious origin will be finally revealed.
Director Joe Wright blew away all my expectations for him. The British director was mostly known for visually lavish period pieces like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. This is a drastic change of pace and proof that the occasional art director can produce a great-looking, meditative action thriller that still delivers the goods. Wright’s camerawork is beautiful, making artful use of composition, lighting, and editing to deliberate purpose. There were several moments that I just got caught up in the look of the film, aided by the energetic if sadly too-often absent score by The Chemical Brothers (I love the chunky bass groove on “Container Park”). I was just impressed what could be produced under the guise of action cinema. This is an elevation of the genre. Wright’s color palette is awash in ominous reds, soft blues, and delicate yellows, which helps give the film this painterly approach to photography. Pay attention to the dream-like visual metaphors connected to fairy tales (Marissa seems to have a tooth cleaning fetish –“What big teeth you have…”). At the same time, Wright knows how to stage a terrific action sequence. His signature tracking shots allow the audience to become enveloped in the action, taking in the punches and kicks without the disorientation of the popular erratic editing style of modern action cinema. Bana taking down a bunch of goons in a subway level is made more thrilling because we see every second of activity, allowing the moment to build in tension as he is followed, then cornered, then strikes out.
17-year-old Ronan has left the awkward pubescence of The Lovely Bones far behind her. Like her Atonement director, she too steps far beyond our concept of what she is able to perform. Ronan is a five-foot-tall wrecking crew. She keeps her eyes intensely focused, tense blue orbs. At the same time that she convincingly kicks butt up and down the screen, Ronan successfully communicates the internal drama of her character. Hanna is an outsider trained her whole life for a single purpose. When she’s left in a Moroccan back room, Hanna is overwhelmed by the cacophony of noises by electronic appliances, at a loss to make the melange of sound cease. She’s a victim of her own upbringing and her father’s quest for vengeance. Ronan keeps her icy cool demeanor when she means business, but the Irish lass and her straw-blonde hair manage to find the girl inside the super girl. Bana (Star Trek) is suitably stoic and conflicted as the father, and all hail Blanchett (Robin Hood) as a good villain for once. With her Southern drawl, she presents an alluring sense of menace throughout without breaking down into over-the-top histrionics. Blanchett is so good as a slippery CIA agent that you wish she didn’t farm out her villainy to a group of German goons.
What holds Hanna back from greatness is it uneven natures of its plot and the lack of sustainable action. The movie is just as much a strange coming-of-age saga for a girl who was raised in the woods. The lengthy travelogue with the British family from North Africa through Spain kills the film’s momentum routinely. Things will start picking up, the excitement builds, and then we cut back to the goofy caricature of a flighty liberal family (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying as the parents). Despite the painful “do what you feel?” parenting cues, the family unit seems to have some level of functionality. These scenes are meant to contrast with Hanna’s own upbringing. It’s meant to show the life that Hanna has never been allowed to choose. But I got that rather quickly. Also, if you want to sell the “alternative path” contrast it would have more impact if this foil family were more appealing and less annoying. Even moment Hanna tags along as a stowaway with this family it disrupts the momentum. I understand that Hanna needed some narrative excuse to get from the rocky deserts of Northern Africa into central Europe, but when you’re dealing with a super kid, why rely on her just hitching a ride with a van full of hippies?
What really let me down was the lack of sustainable action that developed. While I’ve already credited Wright’s handling of the onscreen fisticuffs, I just wish there was more of it. The action occurs in spurts that fail to keep up. That tracking shot fight sequence is wonderful, but it’s too short. Hanna taking out men twice her size is undeniably enjoyable, but short of an excellent sequence of hide-and-pummel through a cargo ship yard, Hanna is never put in a position of risk. Sure she’s in danger but she’s never overmatched, which is part of the reason why the action sequences only happen in bursts. Her competition never seems to be truly threatening. Hollander (looking eerily, eerily like celebrity blogger Perez Hilton) in white bike shorts is not that intimidating. He’ll stand out, which might not be what a CIA agent wants when she hires goons to track and kill a super kid, but he’s never more threatening than Henchman #2 status, though he’s been irresponsibly promoted for the purposes of this movie. I realize that Wright and his screenwriters, Seth Lochhead and David Farr, wanted a character-based action thriller. Hanna is that film, but it could have been a more thriller vehicle if more attention was spent on the realities of their dramatic setup. The problem with making Hanna a super kid warrior is that she needs either BETTER competition or MORE competition. Pick one. But having a small number of inferior toughs seems like the worst outcome for people who want solid, sustainable action.
The plot of Hanna is fairly conventional but the style and feel of the film are anything but. Wright has assembled a first-class art-thriller that would have been a work of true greatness if the plot could have gotten itself figured out. Splitting time between action set pieces and a family road trip is not an ideal use of running time. The action works fantastic, that is, when it does make its too-brief appearances. I’ve read several comparisons to Run Lola Run due to the stylized visuals, pace-setting electronica score, and likely general German setting, but I feel these comparisons are surface-level; Lola was a firecracker of style and energy rarely replicated in film (it’s my go-to film to show people who are self-described haters of foreign films). Hanna is no Lola, but Hanna is still a class ahead of her peers. Wright and company have produced a film that is moody, stylish, thrilling, and just a little bit ridiculous. As Hanna says to her prey, she just missed your heart. Whether that’s by design or accident, we’ll never know.
Nate’s Grade: B