Archive for June, 2011

Hey, Marvel, what’s next? Because frankly, I’m not entirely sure what we’ve got here. Is director Matthew (Kick-Ass) Vaughn’s X-Men:First Class a reboot? A standard-issue prequel? A sidebar item before we get back to the main story? It’s never made entirely clear, and frankly between this and last year’s X-Men Origins:Wolverine, it’s hard to say exactly where this license-to-print-money cinematic franchise is going. Which is not to say that it’s a bad flick in and of itself. It’s pretty decent, and in fact starts off almost looking like it’s going to be a serious shot in the arm for the property in general. But by the time it’s over, even though what we’ve witnessed is by any standard a pretty solid superhero flick (that starts to fizzle a bit the longer it goes on, but a lot of them to do that so we won’t hold that against it too terribly much), we’re no more clear about just what the next X chapter is going to be than we were when it started.

Because frankly there’s not much point in a sequel to this one. The story of a young Professor x (James McAvoy, who’s usually a pretty solid actor but here seems to be more or less mailing it in ) and Magneto (portrayed by Michael Fassbender, who delivers a sterling performance and has by far the best material to work with here as a Holocaust surviving-mutant who’s hunting down the Nazi monsters responsible for the murder of his mother, either directly or indirectly — and who, at certain angles, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Ian McKellen, so kudos for a terrific casting job here, fellas) and how they assembled and trained the first mutant superhero team in preparation for a conflict with a seriously evil (and apparently immortal) son-of-a-bitch named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a terrific scenery-chewing turn), who’s manipulating the Cuban missile crisis in order to bring about World War 3 and the destruction of mankind/takeover of Earth by mutantkind, and how Xavier and Magneto came to go their separate ways at the close of said ordeal, is pretty much an open-and-shut story. And enjoyable, mostly entertaining one, to be sure, but not really an open-ended one.

There are some surprises along the way, and some diversion from established comic-book continuity that will certainly enrage some fans and thrill others, but on the whole you never get the sense that you’re watching the rebirth of a legend here or something. It’s just backstory filler. Good backstory filler, competent backstory filler, at times even enthralling backstory filler (especially the opening concentration camp scenes), but backstory filler nonetheless.

Which isn’t to say that anyone apart from McAvoy seems to be just going through the motions. Vaughn has adopted a swingin’ ’60s visual sensibility, particularly in the “time marches on —” montage-style scenes, that  works quite well , is terribly theme-appropriate, and also, frankly, exhudes a type of playful fun. Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone fame tunrs in a terrific performance as the young Raven/Mystique, who in equal turns pines longingly after Xavier but sees more worth in Magneto’s vision for the mutant’s future. January Jones, despite having a name that instantly marks her for being drawn and quartered on mere principle alone, is coolly confident as the sexy Emma Frost (although she looks a lot better from a distance and, sorry to dwell on the physical, just sort of looks weird in some of Vaughn’s lingering close-up shots). Rose Byrne is supremely competent, if unspectacular, as CIA liason/potential Xavier love-interest Moira MacTaggart. Oliver Platt does his — well, Oliver Platt — as — errrmmm — Oliver Platt (his G-Man character doesn’t have a credited name). And the story is certainly clever even if it does lose some momentum early on and never really gets it back.

But the whole thing’s also a bit schizophrenic. It starts off looking like it’s headed for Christopher Nolan-style superhero realism and ends with ridculous code names for the characters and an agonizingly-drawn-out, way-too-OTT scene of Xavier getting shot that might pack more dramatic wallop if we actually thought he might die, but seems just plain self-indulgent since we know that he doesn’t and this is how he ends up in his magic wheelchair.

On the whole, then, X-Men:First Class would be a lot more effective if it knew what it was, and what part in the overall ouevre of the series it was supposed to be filling. As it is, it feels like nothing so much an an enjoyable, generally-well-executed diversion, that does the best it can given its rather not-completely-thought-through remit. Where it all goes from here is anybody’s guess, and while you’ll more than likely be pretty entertained by this movie(I certainly was), you won’t come away from it with any answers about where the X-Men concept is headed in the future, and that’s something that the powers that be at Marvel and 20th Century Fox need to start figuring out fast before they kill their golden goose not so much through incompetence as sheer aimlessness. What’s next, indeed.

Ahhhh, childhood. When you’re in that 12-10-14 (or whatever) age bracket, so much about life seems just out of reach. You’re interested in the opposite sex for the first time but don’t really know why; the things the grown-ups talk about or that you see on the evening new remain just beyond the full reach of your understanding; and honestly, life itself seems frustratingly close to really, truly beginning, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

There’s one big secret that no one tells kids, though, although they try to through cliched expressions like “enjoy youth while you’ve got it,” etc. — and that is, once all this shit really does start to make sense, it all makes less sense than ever. If you know what I mean.  The last throes of childhood really are a magical time, when you look back, because when you’re at that stage where the inner working of human life seem just moments away from your fully comprehending them, you imagine to yourself how great it’s all going to be once you’ve got this whole thing figured out, and there’s no doubt in your mind that you will. The things you don’t quite understand, about why we humans are the way we are and why we’ve constructed our society to be the way it is, are all like ripe fruit hanging not quite low enough for you to pick, but once you’ve got ’em, damnit, you’ll grab on and not let go.

Then something happens — slowly, inexorably, you do indeed begin to figure life out, only to find out that it all makes even less sense than you thought it did, and the only explanation the older and purportedly “wiser” folks have to offer is the unsatisfying (but you might as well get used to it) “that’s just the way things are.” And honestly, it’s such a letdown, isn’t it? to go from thinking there must be some reason you’re not quite getting why people are the way they are, and the world is the way it is, to knowing there really is no reason whatsoever for any of it, but it’s never going to change so just go with the flow, kid.

What’s all this got to do with writer-director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, you ask? Well, not since Steven Spielberg (who also served as an air-quote executive producer on this flick)’s E.T. has a summer blockbuster so keenly understood — and yeah, if we’re going to be completely honest, exploited — this particular ultra-early-adolescent mindset, and shown the world so effectively through the eyes of the people who are, let’s face it, the movie’s target audience. And if you happen to be (or were) one of those geeky kids who didn’t quite fit in and cared more about George Romero flicks than about sports, it hits home all the more.

The kids in this movie (a largely unknown cast headed by Joel Courtney as protagonist Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning as the object of his first crush, Alice Dainard, who all, incidentally, do a damn fine job across the board) are so close to getting it — they witness the train crash that will soon change everything they know about their town and, by extension, the world, while out late one night working on a home-made Super 8 zombie movie (just to show how close they-are-to-but-not-quite-getting-it count up the number of times backyard auteur/Joe’s best buddy/obligatorily-included fat kid Charles talks about “production value” for his film), but never fully understand why the military is coming down on their town like a ton of bricks, why they’re soon at the epicenter of what could be an alien invasion, and why some their parents don’t get along, even though they’ve seen a hundred movies about alien/zombie apocalypses and they somehow intrinsically just get the feeling that it’s going to be up to them to put things right. This late-childhood/ultra-early-adolescent sense of awe and wonder and being intrigued, rather than frustrated, by confusion is really at the core of what Super 8 is all about, story be damned.

And frankly, the story does have some weak spots, because the explanations of what is going on are, indeed, less than completely satisfying as they unfold, and it’s so much more interesting to just imagine what might be going on rather than actually know about it. But honestly, whether by accident or design (and frankly I think it’s a little bit of both), this whole arc of going from wide-eyed kid to slightly-more-world-wise-kid-provided-with-less-than-satisfying-explanations-for what’s-going-down is so in tune with the overall aesthetic of the film that even the parts that don’t work feel like they do work because the questions are supposed to be so much more satisfying than the answers. It’s just that the kids, of course, won’t really know that until years later, after the pattern has repeated itself on a smaller scale time and time again.

The other big influence here is Cloverfield — produced, of course, by Abrams himself (a patron at the theater I attended remarked that the whole thing “felt like E.T. meets Cloverfield, and he was exactly right — which makes me wonder why the hell this movie worked so well for me since, earlier comments about its one praiseworthy aspect notwithstanding, I’m not a tremendous fan of E.T. and, frankly, I didn’t care much for Cloverfield at all — but hey, I don’t like either chocolate or peanut butter much on their own, but give me a Reese’s anytime), and making its presence felt in pretty much every CGI alien scene once the shit really starts to hit the fan. We never really see the entire monster, for instance, for more than the briefest of instances toward the end, and a good chunk of why exactly it’s doing what it’s doing is only hinted at rather than fully fleshed out (although it’s pretty easy to fill in the necessary blanks).  Which makes me wonder what kind of blockbusters we’re going to be seeing in 20 years’ time when the kids who grew up on Cloverfield grow up to become Hollywood wunderkind directors and producers. but I guess we’ll find out about that when the time comes.

And truth be told, Super 8 doesn’t have much of anything to do with looking toward the future, it’s all about celebrating the past, from its early-80s time period setting to the subject matter that motivates the celebratory heart of the film itself. J.J. Abrams is thanking the Romeros and Spielbergs and Lucases and Carpenters of the world with a cinematic love letter, a ceulluloid portrayal of who he was and what their influence did to cause him to become what he is today. It’s a lot longer on style than it is on substance, to be sure, but it’s sincere, heartfelt, intriguing, and all just a little bit wonderful. Much like childhood itself.

Seriously, folks, where’s all the hate coming from? I’ve seen these summer superhero blockbusters, and you’ve seen ’em too — please tell me how director Martin Campbell’s  cinematic adaptation of the venerable DC comics property Green Lantern is any worse than the rest? In fact, I’d argue — and not just to be contrarian, although I’m certainly not above such behavior — that it is, in fact, a damn sight better than most of them. And yet the word seems to be out —, in fact, went so far as to call the buzz on this movie “toxic” — that even in a genre expressly designed to be nothing but eye-candy crap, Green Lantern is especially bad.

I say pshah (or however you sell that) on that. GL  is a goddamn blast.

All of which is not to say it doesn’t have its flaws. They are many, and they are varied — from Ryan Reynolds’ poorly-executed costume to Blake Lively’s thoroughly nondescript (to put it charitably — although she is easy on the eyes) performance as love interest Carol Ferris to the TV-movie-the-week “quality” of James Newton Howard’s musical score,  this movie has a shitload of problems.

But it’s also tremendously ambitious and not afraid to use every penny of its purported $200 million budget bringing summer braindead audiences exactly what they want, and probably a great deal more than what they expect. Sure, you can quibble about the movie’s overall unnecessarily somber tone, its few attempts at humor falling absolutely flat, the general unlikability of central character Hal Jordan, its ham-fisted attempts at dwelling on the metaphysical nature of fear itself, etc. — but why dwell on the negatives with this flick while giving all the other mega-blockbusters a pass when they throw in everything but the kitchen sink and most of it doesn’t work?

I think Green Lantern is coming in for extra criticism for a couple of reasons, one obvious and one less so. The first is that pre-release buzz to a large extent defines critical and audience perceptions of a film these days, and this flick was in deep trouble on that front from the word go (and even before it). At the concept/pre-production stage it went through all kinds of bizarre transmutations (at one point it was even envisioned as a straight-up farce to be directed by Jon Favreau with Jack black as an incompetent superhero) before the steady hand of James Bond veteran Campbell was brought in to provide sensibility and stability. The seas were calm until that first disastrous preview trailer hit, which again made the whole thing look like a half-assed comedy of some sort, and required an almost-immediate response in the form of a new, CGI-heavy trailer designed to calm all the fanboy nerves out there. The reaction to the second trailer was mostly positive, but the damage had been done — this was now perceived as a movie with problems.

Secondly, and this is where we get just a little bit theoretical so please bear with me, Green Lantern, rather than trying to eschew the inherent implausibility (and, frankly, absurdity) of its premise, which is something all self-respecting blockbusters just plain must do in order to provide a thin veneer of supposed “respectability” to their outlandish scale and nature, not only embraces, but flat-out flaunts how fucking impossibly crazy it is. This is a movie about a guy with a magical green ring that can do anything fighting a giant goddamn space octopus made out of pure fear energy, for God’s sake! I say screw the supposed “respectability” you’re never going to get anyway, and go for the gusto — and that’s exactly what Green Lantern does.

On a practical level, sure, there are some nice performances from Peter Sarsgaard as the demented villain Hector Hammond (and this is a flat-out great insane movie baddie, folks), tim Robbins as his morally and politically corrupt US Senator father, and the criminally0underutilized Angela Bassett as alien-researcher Dr. Amanda Waller. Mark Strong is also solid as bad-add GL Corps member (and future bad guy if they ever do a sequel) Sinestro. But the main star here is the CGI, as is always the case with this stuff, and it’s straight-up awesome to look at. Yes, what’s unfolding on the screen is patently, even hysterically, absurd — but then so is what we’re seeing in Thor, Transformers, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, you name it. But the scale and scope of the story here is such that you can’t really run and hide from the absurdity and pretend it’s not there — you’ve either gotta embrace it all the way, or go home. Give Green Lantern credit for never shying away from what it is and for not being afraid to fail. It’s as if Campbell knew that some of this shit was gonna hit, some was gonna miss, and he had no choice but to go all in and put every one of his cards on the table. He shoots for the moon each and every time and if he doesn’t get there at least he sure as shit tried.

And that’s where I think this movie ultimately succeeds. What it lacks in brains and believability it more than makes up for in sheer balls. This is a movie that knows what it’s supposed to do and occasionally isn’t afraid to try to be even a bit more than what it is. there’s no cruise control setting here, folks — Campbell and his cohorts got up every morning and went the fuck to work. The end result isn’t high cinematic art or even anything close to it, but then that was hardly the goal. Their objective was to hit you with everything they’ve got and then some, and while admittedly a great number of their punches miss, those that hit really wallop the hell out of you. Why waste your time with movies that insult your intelligence by even pretending for a minute that they have any? Go all out, embrace your inner 12-year-old, stick your brain in a formaldehyde jar in case you decide you need it again after the movie, and kick back and enjoy the spectacle. That’s all these summer superhero mega-monoliths are — at least Green Lantern has the guts to admit it and drag you along for a thoroughly entertaining ride. A guy in the seat in front of me summed it up best when he said “Fuckin’-A right” as the credits rolled, and it occured to me that somewhere Martin Campbell should be smiling, as I can’t imagine a more perfect reaction to his handiwork.

So, here we’re kicking off what looks to be a two-part sidebar (I’ll get around to the next film going under this banner sometime in the next week or two) your hose has decided to call “CineHoax” for reasons that should be pretty damn obvious pretty damn quickly. We’ll start at the supposed beginning and go from there —

In the summer of 2005, the Hollywood offices of fourth-rate rock n’ roll documentary producers Highway 61 Entertainment purportedly received a package in the mail from London with no return address (which raises the question how did they know it was, specifically, from London, and not just the UK?) that purportedly contained two microcassettes purportedly dated December 30, 1999 that (again, purportedly) contained the voice of George Harrison relating an amazing story — the Paul McCartney “death hoax” stuff that’s been floating around over the years is all true! The “real” McCartney apparently died in a car crash in 1966 after storming out of the recording studio following a heated argument with John Lennon and was replaced with a double (apparently some clown who won a Paul McCartney look-alike contest) at the behest of British intelligence in order to prevent what they felt was the mass suicide of hysterical Beatles fans (particularly of the teenage female variety) that would inevitable follow should news of this tragic accident reach the public.

For the rest of their career, both together and apart, the Fab Four were closely monitored by MI-5 to prevent them from spilling the beans on this, the original great rock n’ roll swindle — being the clever lads they were, however, the Beatles managed to sneak a few clues about the “truth” of the situation into various recordings through the miracle of backward-masking audio, and the result has been a slow but steady buzz that’s continued for over four decades.

Highway 61 president (and director of this “documentary”) Joel Gilbert apparently felt that, even though the material contained on these tapes could, of course, never be verified, the “information” contained on them is so explosive and revelatory that he just couldn’t sit on it forever — rather, being the massive humanitarian that he is, Gilbert had to get this information out somehow, no matter the risk to his own health and safety, and the result is the 2010 straight-to-DVD release Paul McCartney Really Is Dead : The Last Testament Of George Harrison?, a “film” which, in all honesty, is nothing more than a 95-minute voice-over of the “Harrison” recordings playing over a series of graphics, still photos, and backward-masking audio loops (obviously getting clearance to include any actual Beatles music was going to be waaaaaaayyyy far out of the question here). So, how convincing a case does this “blockbuster expose” present?

Well, let me be far from the first to call bullshit on some pretty obvious stuff here : to start with, the voice that the producers claim sounds “eerily like” Harrison sounds a lot more like an out-of-work American actor trying desperately to maintain a working-class Liverpudlian accent that Harrison no doubt — uhmmmmm — grew out of (or ditched, depending on how cynical about all things celebrity you might be) as time wore on. I’ve checked out a few YouTube clips of Harrison for the sake of comparison, and they pretty much sound nothing alike. Next up, there’s the “mysterious” origins of the tapes — my best guess, and mind you it’s only a guess, is that the original source of these “too hot to handle” recordings is Highway 61 Productions themselves. Now, they probably did, in fact, go to the trouble, after recording them, of then sending them to an associate in the UK who would then mail them back, unaddressed, in order to have a semi-plausible cover story, but this whole production strikes me as a thoroughly in-house affair from start to finish. And finally, we’ve got the plausibility of the whole story itself — sorry, but it’s just too soap opera to be all that believable. Paul and John have a fight — Paul storms off in his car — he’s not paying attention, and the weather bad — blam!, it’s all over, and the cover-up begins —

All of which is not to say, however, that I don’t think the “real” Paul might indeed be dead. Frankly, I have an open mind on the subject. But not because of anything presented in this flick. on the contrary, this production strikes me as the classic intelligence agency “double-bluff,” which basically works thusly —

Let’s say you’re a government agency or mega-corporate enterprise (what’s the difference, anyway?) and you’ve got some secret. It’s leaked out a bit, on whatever rudimentary level, and could cause you some headaches if it gains anything like real traction in the press. The best way to discredit it, as anybody involved in research fields as various and sundry as the Kennedy assassination of UFOs will tell you, is to “put it out there,” as it were, albeit in a form that strains credulity so far beyond the breaking point that it will thoroughly negate the story and consequently portray anybody involved in continuing to research it as a loon. So, if you’re British MI-5 and you want to discredit all “Paul is dead” theories and the folks pursuing them, the best way to do it is to put out your own film that says “hey, yes, Paul really might be dead” but do such a half-assed job of it that it makes any further investigation into the topic look like a waste of time. Throw in a few half-truths to make the premise itself or the research springing from it meet the unspoken standard that causes the average viewer to say to him-or herself “well, I guess I can see why they looked into this, but c’mon, people, this is just grasping at straws” as they watch with increasingly detached bemusement, and you’re all set. Mission fucking accomplished.

So, oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) enough, Paul McCartney Really Is Dead does provide some roundabout evidence to support its central claim(in fact, the existence of the film itself is this evidence) — not by advancing anything like a realistic and convincing examination of the rumors surrounding McCartney’s possible demise, but by doing such a shitty, third-rate, amateurish job of it that a questioning person has honestly gotta wonder if maybe there’s something to all this because the powers-that-be are so obviously still trying to discredit this whole line of investigation by dropping crap like this in the public’s lap. maybe Highway 61 Entertainment is being used deliberately, or maybe they just found a conveniently desperate huckster to peddle their wares through, but one way or another, by making “Paul is dead” research look like a fringe topic of concern to no one but sad obsessives, Joel Gilbert and company are playing right into the hands of the folks who would want to keep McCartney’s death a secret if it really did happen.

As to whether or not I personally think that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a double. I’ll just say this —

Given that McCartney’s post-Beatles career is made up of simple-minded drivel like “Silly Love Songs” and the truly, almost incomparably loathsome pro-“war on terrorism” anthem “Freedom” (which undoubtedly had both George Harrison and John Lennon spinning in their graves), does it really matter?