Sunday, June 30, 2013

Summer Reading 1: Les Misérables (1934) We'll Start Things Easy with a Five Hour Movie

Welcome back to The Third Row.
With this entry, we mark the first review into Summer Reading.  It's a little bit later into the summer than planned, but we're still going ahead from here.

For the first pick, as promised, and part of the reason for the delay, we started at the deep end of the pool.  The first adaptation chosen for this year was Raymond Bernard's 1934 version of Les Misérables.  This version is considered by many to be the most faithful and definitive adaptation.  There are several reasons for that; The first is the fact that, in terms of adapting this monster of a book, it actually keeps a LOT in.  The trade-off, of course, being the movie clocks in at roughly 4 hours and 40 minutes (Bernard actually divided it into three smaller films: A Tempest in a Skull, The Thénardiers, and Freedom, Sweet Freedom.)  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't impressed by just how much of the book Bernard was able to put into this, And though the third film does see considerably more revising and folding storylines in, it's somewhat understandable by that point in the film.  Even then, it's still quite an impressive feat.

Pictured - The only color image you'll see this entire review.  Enjoy it while it lasts.
...The black & white stuff is quite nice though.

Probably one of the strongest aspects this adaptation has going for it is its casting.  This in particular referring to Harry Baur who plays Valjean in this version (the film actually credits him as Valjean as well as his several other aliases throughout the story.)  When I first saw him in the film, I wasn't quite sure what to make of how to feel about his take on the character.  Any question was quick dispelled within the first half-hour, when I watched this imposing looking actor go from the hardened ex-convict to a shaken and eventually guilt-ridden man.  Baur is up to the task of the emotional range required for the character and is one of the strongest elements of this film.  Even before I got that far in, I was already bracing myself for his take on the finale.  For those who've not read the book, the scenes where Valjean tries to separate himself from Cosette are, honestly, pretty depressing to read.  As such, I was braced for a downright heartbreaking performance from Baur.  The result was, while not devastating, still pretty powerful to watch.  Alongside Baur, the rest of the cast all carry their roles quite well, and it makes it really hard to single out particular strong performances among them all.  The three others I really have to hand the extra acclaim to being Émile Genevois, whose Gavroche has the right level of impertinent energy for the young would-be revolutionary, Henry Krauss, whose bishop of Digne captures the warmth and good humor it took Hugo 50 pages to properly set up, and Max Dearly as M. Gillenormand.  The latter was pretty surprising for me, given most adaptations tend to marginalize a character who was one of the few Hugo wrote as fairly openly comedic.  Dearly runs with the contradictory bourgeois character Hugo created and takes it all the way to the proverbial goal posts, actually inspiring some chuckles in just the mannerisms he gives the character.  While not relating to the acting directly, one other thing I would like to give to the casting, and this was something I wasn't even looking for, but struck me when it happened, was in keeping the familiar connection between Fantine and Cosette.  In fact, the resemblance between the two actresses was close enough I actually had to look to see if they had the same actress playing both roles (the former is played by Florelle while the latter is played by Josseline Gaël, for the record.)

Here we have Florelle's Fantine as the proud winner of 1821's 'It Sucks To Be Me' award

Though, not to be outdone, Cosette is making a good bid to trump her mother thanks to abusive child labor.

I could really keep going on the casting, but I realize you guys are busy and time is precious, etc, etc...point is, this is one count where Bernard's film knocks it out of the park.

In terms of adapting the story - well, like I said above.  I'm amazed at just how much this version retains from the book.  Further, even the stuff it has to boil down, I was impressed to see was handled well.  Scenes such as establishing what prison was like for Valjean, or Fantine's life before she was left an unwed mother are handled in fairly brief flashbacks, but the scenes encapsulate their lives quite well just in the reactions of the people within the sequences.  The film even makes a game effort of handling one of the most daunting parts of the book - the sheer amount of introspection that informs the characters' decisions.  This particularly comes into play during the ends of the first and third movies in the set, first when Baur's Valjean contemplates revealing himself to save a wronged man (also played by Baur) and later when Javert (Charles Vanel, in full professional seriousness without overselling it) tries to reconcile being spared by Valjean, and his own decision to let him go.  Rather than treat it as full monologues, the film allows them a few moments of thinking out loud, instead rationalizing to themselves rather than make a speech.  The second film of the three, admittedly, sees a LOT of narrative trimmed.  Though given what that consists of, I can't entirely say I'll hold it against them - while I admit Marius's backstory is fairly interesting (and some of it does make it into this version), I think an entire movie of his unrequited love for Cosette from afar would get old FAST.  I found myself pleasantly surprised to see this version instead jumped us ahead so they already know each other and have been communicating in secret.  Speaking of modifications to the complicated love life of Marius, of the adaptations I've seen, this is the first so far that's actually acknowledged 'you know something?  While she's sympathetic, Eponine's logic is actually kind of creepy.'  Other versions tend to omit her bigger role in almost getting Marius killed in favor of the nicer image, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this version leave that in. Further, the trimming here is more than made up for in the third film, wherein they capture one of the biggest visual pieces of the story - the failed rebellion of 1832, where Marius and his friends make a fatal final stand at a barricade of their own design.  For a movie that's now almost 80 years old, this sequence has actually aged surprisingly well - the opening outbreak of the rebellion is swift, chaotic, and Bernard puts the audience right in the middle of it.  Further, the barricade matches the challenge of both looking impressive while still maintaining the closed in feeling of the students ready to fight to the death for their beliefs.  About the only real area where the film has shown something of a stumbling here, if you can call it that, is in the limitations of 30s filmmaking as far as gunshots go (they actually handle some of these fairly well with some quick edits, but one major demise winds up looking a bit awkward when the character is hit by several musket shots, but hasn't got a mark on him when he falls backward dead.)  This limitation aside, however, the sequence is easily one of the highlights of the trilogy in terms of filmmaking.

It's only out of respect for not disrupting the space-time continuum that no one's cranking Public Enemy right here.

...I keep telling myself I won't go overboard on these and I keep lying.  But in all fairness, again, it's a long film (actually, I think this is officially the longest film to have a featured review on the site so far, outstreaking Heaven's Gate by about an hour) and it has a LOT to offer for it.

Really, it's hard for me to even find much for weak spots in here.  Even the narrative changes which sometimes felt a bit strange, never genuinely seemed to hurt the film (though it DID seem a bit weird to have M. Thénardier removed from the film that early, but they still managed to cover his absence well enough.)  The streamlining and speeding up of some events is something of a necessary evil, so it's understandable in how it's handled, and the fact that the movie still has as much in it as it does still speaks very well to how it does in translating this work to the screen.  Likewise, they still manage to work in some sequences I honestly didn't expect to see within a film version (most notably ending the second movie with a sequence where Cosette and Valjean watch a team of convicts being carted off to penal colonies.  It's a fairly short section in the book, and the film actually manages to find it a good place in the narrative while also giving it a strong emotional impact to leave the second movie off on.)  Hell, the more I try to think about it, really the only thing I could ALMOST call a negative here would be that the musical score wasn't particularly memorable in an otherwise very strong film.

Well, that and, again, if you haven't got the endurance for a 4+ hour subtitled movie, this could be problematic - though the fact it's broken up into movies that are 1hr50min, 1hr20min, and 1hr26 min does make it considerably less daunting and much easier to process and digest.

"So, you're gonna haunt my conscience and cause me to clean up my act, but it WON'T be through a long lecture? ... OK, I'm in."

All in all, this is a pretty strong starting entry for the project.  It's definitely not a full 1:1 lift of the original novel...but then, if it was, I'd probably still be watching it right now rather than posting this.  Yes, it's THAT much story.  For what it's working with, however, and the amount of time they have, the filmmakers do a surprisingly good job trying to encapsulate as much of the narrative and its themes into the time they have as they can.  Having seen it, I can see why it's considered by many to be the gold standard of filmed versions of the story.

So there's that.  Admittedly, this was a lot more verbose than I'd planned for this one to get...but what can I say?  It gives a lot to work with, and it does it well.
In a bit of a partial jump of the schedule, I'll be doing a writeup on the stage version of the story for next week (partially since it's gonna be a bit different from a standard film review, so I'm tagging it as an extra for this project, albeit one which will inform one of the later entries.)

In the meantime, alongside this, other reviews will resume during the week as well.

Till next time, folks!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Man of Steel - Good Idea, Bad Idea: The Movie

Greetings and welcome back to the now somewhat irregularly paced adventures in The Third Row.  The first entry for Summer Reading is still in the works (again, it IS a five hour movie,) so in the meantime, here's to another entry from the current releases.

This is one where I have to admit, I went in with a good sized dose of skepticism.  Man of Steel was a movie that's been in a rather shaky spot from its inception.  For one, it's directed by Zack Snyder, the man whose style-over-substance approach of directing propelled him to fame with his remake of Dawn of the Dead and 300, and then promptly knifed him in the back with his rather Shallow-to-mixed bag adaptation of Watchmen and the total bombout of Sucker Punch.  It isn't exactly exaggeration to say this was his shot at redemption.  Further, the fact he was paired with a post-Batman Christopher Nolan made it tough to really predict where this was going to go.  On top of all this, the trailers ranged anywhere from promising to...inadvertent comedy. Truth be told, the first teaser set to Gandalf's death theme from the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack nearly buried the film for me before it even came out. So I went in to this movie with my expectations kept somewhat low.  A task made even easier thanks to the mixed initial reception from other critics.

"Come on, guys.  I know it wasn't perfect, but it wasn't that bad, was it?"

To my surprise, the film actually wasn't as bad as I was braced for.  In fact, this may be one of Snyder's more watchable films, and more importantly may be a sign he's not completely out of steam as a director.  Of course, for all the good in the film, it also has a LOT of problems going for it- Not the least of which is the script by David S. Goyer that is ultimately a pile of good ideas that don't add up to much of anything.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  Probably best to start from the beginning.

In particular, I'm going to stress that 'from the beginning' factor here. I know several people have criticized this film for revisiting Superman's origin story, which is one of the few superhero origin stories that's actually common knowledge and arguably not needed. However, I can actually kind of accept it in this case.  One of the one things I will give this film right here and now is the fact that they made it clear from the beginning this was going to distance itself from the Richard Donner movies of the 70s and 80s.  While I happen to really like the first two of the classic Christopher Reeve movies, I can honestly say this is one of the best ideas this movie had.  One of the biggest problems that wound up plaguing Bryan Singer's Superman Returns before this was the fact that its attempt to channel the Donner films to a modern audience felt, ultimately, rather out of place (though I must admit Kevin Spacey made it at least worth a single watch.)  So I took their revisiting the origin story in this case as something of a necessary evil - making it clear to audiences beyond any doubt that this was no longer the Christopher Reeve Superman that has been the staple for so long.  Unfortunately, the only thing I think I can really give the prologue is that, for my initial misgivings over his casting, I really wound up liking Russell Crowe's new take on Jor-El. As Superman's doomed father and a character who spends most of the movie dead, he actually still gives us a strong sense of benevolent father figure and actually still manages to exert a decent level of paternal warmth for a son he never truly got to know.

"With the destruction our world, so too ends my days of foightin' round the world.
That is a legacy you must carry on, my son."

Otherwise, however, the Krypton prologue is a lot of set-up that sadly doesn't go anywhere near as far as it could or should.  The idea of showing us a Krypton that had essentially reverted and become a dead end society lends itself to some interesting fodder, both as general sci-fi in its own right and with regards to what makes Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill, who we'll go more into later) different from his people, and comparing Earth and Krypton.  Even the nature of Krypton's demise, while a bit ham-fisted as a social commentary on our own energy crisis, could have been made into something more in the overarcing story than it was.  As it is, however, most of the prologue is just a simple action piece that takes far longer establishing Jor-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon) than we really need.  It's not even like I can say it's a particularly strong set piece, either.  The faux-Heavy Metal sets look decent, but aren't really anything jaw dropping.

That said, with the ideas they had set up, a full Krypton prequel piece MIGHT be interesting done right.  Just saying...

Wow...that took more to go into than I thought.  Though, to be fair, that prologue DOES go on for a while.

From there, we finally move into Superman's part of the story.  Which, again, has some potential to it, but is kind of a mixed bag in its execution.  Rather than embrace the classic all-American do-gooder image the character is known for, this movie instead spends much of its first half with Clark Kent as the classic 'man without a country', wandering the US, doing good deeds for people as we intercut to flashbacks of his childhood, where we see his powers treated as a drawback.  The flashbacks are another one of those cases of good idea-bad idea that this movie keeps coming back to, so best to just get used to the 'but...' moments, guys...
Some of the ideas the flashbacks bring to the film are actually not bad - the idea that Clark would have to learn to control his powers when he was younger is a nice touch.  Unfortunately, there is also the somewhat problematic theme the flashbacks bring of the parents encouraging Clark to suppress his powers constantly for fear of what people might think of him.  Further, the pacing in these flashbacks is rather erratic, both in terms of how long they run and where they're placed within the film.  It's an element that might have fared better had they just covered Clark's life in chronological order rather than shuffling the events.  That said, the casting on the Kent parents is, likewise, split down the middle - Diane Lane as Martha Kent, for what she has to work with in the film, actually carries herself better than I was expecting; Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent...let's put it this way, despite the fact that most of his interactions with his son are done via an old hologram, Crowe still actually shows more moral guidance and paternal warmth of the two father figures in this movie. (Editor's note: My mother almost went to see this movie. Then saw that Costner was in it and declined.)

To that end, I just want to quickly say that, even as mixed as the main cast of this movie is, the supporting cast are actually pretty strong all around on this.  For all of his problems, I have to concede, Snyder is actually capable of some pretty good casting more often than not. 

The film doesn't add it on its own, but there's no reason you can't choose to hum the 'sad walking away music' here yourself if you want.

Anyway, the flashbacks are all there to frame the idea of Superman as a latter day Incredible Hulk - traveling the country, helping people, and then going on his way (albeit without the piano theme.)  This mystery, tied in with a story about a downed alien spaceship, is how the film ropes in Lois Lane (Amy Adams.)  Once again, the good-bad dynamic is in play here: on the one hand, they try to give Lois a stronger standalone character in this version, making her an acclaimed reporter with a strong sense of journalistic integrity that Adams plays well.  On the other side, with her personality and her limited interactions with Superman, the two have a rather painful lack of chemistry.

"I don't care WHAT our dynamic is like in the comics.  I'm NOT going to be the one who get stuck making the joke about your new costume's crotch bulge!"
[Yeah, we knew SOME joke was coming here.  So I at least tried to meet it halfway while still trying to defuse it.]

Speaking of, NOW is a good time to discuss Cavill's take on the boy in blue. To start with, I do commend the filmmakers with going with a relative unknown rather than relying on big star. Still, like so much of this movie, Cavill's performance is a mixed bag.  He plays the outsider well, and even the idea of Superman as a larger than life role model. Yet in trade, this makes his interactions with people, when we're supposed to be reminded of his down-to-Earth upbringing, strangely absent.  It's got the potential to be an interesting reinvention of the character, but, like so much of this film, its execution becomes rather muddled, and the result is a performance that doesn't feel like a mistake, but leaves you with the feeling that it could have been something more with a stronger sense of direction.

Anyway, despite Lois's attempts to bring Superman to light, his big reveal comes with the return of our film's antagonist General Zod.  The missed opportunities with Zod are particularly painful for two reasons.  For one, Michael Shannon is a better actor than this performance would suggest.  For another, the basic idea they suggest behind Zod, a warrior from a genetic caste system who's been hardwired to act for the betterment of Krypton no matter the cost, instead turns him into a two-dimensional thug.  For a few brief moments, Shannon does manage to tap into the challenge that comes from devoting himself to a world that no longer exists, but more often, he spends his screentime snarling and scowling- probably most embodied in the inadvertently comic vow of "I will find him!" he repeats several times in the film's prologue.  A 'Kneel before Zod!' joke felt all but inevitable. you can see, as Zod, Shannon's angry face is the stuff of comedy gold on its own.  Seriously, this doesn't even need a zinger.

Unfortunately, once Zod re-enters the film, most of the potential ideas that have been building up in the first half of the film go flying out the window screaming.  Instead, we get treated to several set-pieces (to Snyder's credit, these sequences are surprisingly absent of his much mocked slow-motion spam,) that, while impressive, don't really feel like they come together for a finished film.  Things like the film's running theme of the question of if the military can trust Superman, and their own rather mixed results in dealing with Zod's forces (though this DOES lead to a pretty likable side character in the form of an air force colonel played by Christopher Meloni.)  Again, it's an interesting idea that the film could do more with, but it mainly only really seems to pay off in the final act, otherwise being a case of "the military is actually pretty useless here, so it's up to Superman to handle everything."

The one thing I will give the above mentioned action pieces - some of them are actually the kind of combat that a Superman movie has been waiting for.  In particular, when Superman throws down against Zod and his fellow Kryptonians, the sequences are fast moving, hard hitting, city wrecking show pieces.  While the destruction at points feels a bit overkill for what's supposed to be a starter movie, it does still actually give the feeling of a fight between two borderline titans in terms of power.  This is actually part of where I'm surprised we didn't get the Snyder slow-motion.  It could have been used and abused at many points here.  The fact it isn't actually caused me to think a little better of Snyder - in particular since letting these scenes move at their particular speeds really helps give the blows the sense of impact the destruction is also trying to convey.

I think by now you can probably get a pretty clear sense of the general consensus of this movie.  There's a lot about it that could be good.  Hell, in other hands, it could have been a great comeback.  Even Snyder seems like he's finally learning how to be a better director here.  He's not there yet, but at least here he seems to be avoiding some of his older mistakes.  Unfortunately, Snyder's the kind of director who's only as good as the script he gets to work with, and David S. Goyer's screenplay is doing him no favors here.  Which is a shame because, again, the story Goyer and Nolan cooked up could have actually knocked this one out of the park as the big comeback Superman has been overdue for.  As it is, however, it feels like an idea that needed more work and focus to really bring out its strengths, and it just didn't get that.  The one thing I will at least give this film as it is would be the fact that, for all of its failings, it did still accomplish one of the things it was trying to prove - that Superman isn't completely dead as a viable film character.  Unfortunately, this wasn't the film to really necessitate his comeback.  It at least showed there's still some ground to explore and grow from, but it never really managed to do the ideas it brought to the table justice on its own.  In that regard, it's actually something of an interesting parallel with its director - like Superman, this shows Snyder may still have a future yet, if he can only get a better sense of his strengths and get a better grip on himself.

All in all, it's a pretty interesting experience as a film.  I wouldn't say it's necessarily a must-see, and even one that would be an automatic big screen experience.  If you have any curiosity, it can't hurt to at least give a look, since it's not without its merits.  At the same time, don't hurt yourself going out of the way for it, cause I can't honestly say it's going to be remembered as one of the year's finest...but hopefully this may at least lay some groundwork for something better in the future.  Apparently they already got the greenlight to make a sequel, so who knows?  Maybe now that they've laid the foundations, they can be able to make something stronger for a follow-up.  Tough to say at this point, but certainly not impossible.

That much thought was probably more than this movie really needed.  But what can I say?  It really is a very hit-and-miss movie.

Anyway, keep an eye out over the next few days.  The first Summer Reading entry will be going up soon.

Till then!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New Project Announcement Time - Commence Groaning

Well, several posts later, we come the project I have been talking about in passing.

This is an idea I've been tossing around off and on since roughly last fall, to give an idea how long this has been gestating.

The more I think about it, the more fascinated I find myself with the entire idea of adaptation.  Something about the idea of someone taking a work and then trying to tell it in a way that's both true to the original work as well as something that's distinctly their own is a challenge I find intriguing to watch play out.  Sometimes it works.  A lot of times, it fails miserably, tending to either be a good film but a poor adaptation, or in some cases, a good adaptation that's frankly just a badly made film.

So, in light of a partial idea suggested by a friend, I got to thinking along these lines about making this a theme for a set of reviews.  As the idea built, it slowly mutated and grew into what I am about to start unleashing on you this week --

In the tradition of that old school custom, The Third Row is announcing a new feature for the season - Summer Reading.

Like that time-honored, and depending who you ask, sometimes reviled summer custom, the upshot here involves the focus on a particular book.  The only real requisite here being that the book has a sufficient number of adaptations to draw from over the course of the summer.  From there, and posted every other Friday/weekend, there will be coverage of another entry in this series, comparing each as standalones as well as how they hold up as adaptations of the source material.

This is being done as an every other week rule for a couple of reasons:
-I like the amount of challenge it gives to try and keep this up over the whole summer
-to that end, only doing this for one month feels like it wouldn't really do the theme justice
-By doing it every other week, I can still keep other work running along with them and not have this drown out everything else lined up.

So with the project lined up, I suppose now is the time to announce which book will be kicking off the project for this year.  Up until recently, I'd had another book picked out for this one, which will get covered in another year.  But this title in particular was something of a 'now or never' moment, given how much of a time investment a reread would call for.

Without further ado, let me then just say it - For this, the first of The Third Row's Summer Reading projects, the focus will be Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

France's major bid to match Charles Dickens in the 'childhood can be a living Hell' department.

Suffice it to say, with that in mind, the time investment makes more sense.  It's also part of why I'm genuinely looking forward to using it for this project - the book is massive.  Not just in terms of page count, mind you.  Hugo has put together a densely written work that feels immense in terms of how build up and laid out everything is within it.  It says something for the amount of backstory and context that this book requires that the version I read came with a solid hundred pages of annotations for all the historical and cultural references.

As such, a complete 1:1 lift would be nigh on impossible.  It would require film length to trump The Human Condition and the budget of a small country and even then there's no guarantee a filmmaker would be insane/ambitious enough to properly capture all the details that go into this.  Again, there's that much context and backstory, as well as a lot of character introspection.

So it will be interesting to see how each adaptation sizes up the challenge, knowing this is a massive game of give-and-take (and yes, while not a film in itself, the musical will be one of the versions covered here, simply because of how well known it is among the different takes on the story.)

Alongside the challenge's also just a well-done story with a lot to offer in the right hands.  I mean, it's one that no doubt most people are familiar with: the rather timeless tale of Jean Valjean, the convict who develops a crisis of conscience that drives him to want to try and straighten up his life, the doomed woman Fantine, her daughter Cosette, the overly zealous lawman Javert...yeah, yeah, I know, we've all heard about them by now.  But really, that's part of why the story's endured this long - even with people who aren't really familiar with the actual context of the period Hugo was writing it in (cause believe me, there are a lot of misconceptions about the era the story takes place in.)  It's a story and characters who have gained a lot of staying power, both as enduring archetypes and within their original context, very fleshed out and believable characters, many of whom are neither good nor evil, so much as they are flawed.

As a book, it's one of those curious cases - on the one hand, it's not really exaggeration to call this book a tome.  Even without the notes, it's a solid 1200 pages of reading, and again, I stress a LOT of backstory (one of the sections starts with roughly 50 pages on the Battle of Waterloo.  A well-written summary, but still one that may make some readers wonder why the Hell Hugo spent so much time on it in relation to the story.  It does have a place, but it could still throw some people.)  For my part, the book took the better part of 4-5 months to get through, and there were a few sections where I had to work up some motivation (primarily the section where he outlines the history of a convent.  I can see why he did it, but MAN that part was dry reading.)  Despite that long duration (which, again, is why the book is this year's pick rather than saving it for another year) and some dryer parts, I still found it VERY worth the read.  When it was finally over, it felt like the end of a very long trip - you feel glad to be done, but still can't help but enjoy having taken the trip.

In France, this is part of classification of books known as un bébé concasseur

...OK, so that was a bit more needlessly prosey than I probably needed to get for an intro piece.  What can I say?  I wound up really liking this one.

Anyway, this weekend will mark the first entry, where I tackle the famous French version from 1934 (at 5 hours running time, it's generally considered to be the best adaptation out there.)  Personally, I'm rather interested to see how it turns out.

Hopefully, this project works and you guys will humor me by following along.

I promise, other stuff will still be run here alongside this.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fast & Furious 6 - The Strangely Refreshing Taste of Honest Stupidity

I just want to start by saying, there's a certain bizarre humor that comes with writing this review.

Mostly in that, in trying to sum up my thoughts on the film, I've had to stop and rewrite my statements many times over.  Not because it's a particularly difficult film to discuss - Quite the opposite, really.  It's more the fact that, because of this, it makes trying to write much into the use the quaint vernacular, an absolute bitch to pull off. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

As I said in the last entry, and as the title to this one confirms, this is the second of the two offerings from the summer blockbuster season recently got to seeing.  A film that held the #1 at the box office for the last couple of weeks, only finally being dethroned two weeks back with the surprise success of The Purge.

That's right.  After taking on the likes of Heaven's Gate and Caligula, I'm having a hard time finding things to say about Fast & Furious 6.

I should also start by saying my only prior encounter with this series was seeing the first movie in high school - an experience I didn't even remember until after this movie.  Well, that and the American Dad episode involving Steve and his friends finding a lost script for the seventh movie (a joke which, amusingly, was more accurate than I'd initially expected.)  At the time, we were looking for something to see and were surprised to see the relatively positive reviews on this one.  Flash forward 90 minutes or so and...well...I'll admit it.  I actually wound up having a lot more fun with this movie than I expected.

The story is...well...let's put it this way, they recap what you need to know of the first five in the opening titles.  It's not like this is a complicated crime saga.  Vin Diesel and Paul Walker steal cars, Walker used to be a cop, there's a lot of over the top car stunts, and somewhere along the way, Dwayne Johnson decided to get back into the action movie scene, and everyone who shook their heads in absolute disbelief over his work on family films lets out a sigh of relief.  (Though I'm still waiting for him to make a return to comedy proper.)

Well, two of them are welcome returns.  Paul...well, you're OK.  Just keep doing what you're doing, but realize the other two are the ones everyone will remember.

Also, somewhere along the way (Editor's note: Around the 4th film), normal GTA wasn't good enough for the series and Diesel, Walker, and their band of merry thieves started taking on varying degrees of bigger and badder criminals.

Yeah, this isn't something you go to for story or character.  That rule continues into this movie, involving a British crime lord who's stolen parts for an EMP weapon, and who is joined by a character previously believed dead and has amnesia. I don't know why I've gone this far into explaining this.  I'm not even really going to say much for it from here on out anyway.

The thing that makes this series work, and probably the reason I wound up walking away from this one entertained, is the fact that it's pretty honest about what it is.  There's no half-heated attempts to work in some social commentary or be meta about the genre.  The films simply are as they are.  Popcorn is really the perfect term here, both as far as a piece of theater fluff, and something that's pretty light and airy, and probably not necessarily good for you...but damn if it isn't tasty when it's made well.

Luckily, this was fairly made well.  At least, as far as the strengths they knew to play to on this one.

The first of these being, for what little characterization these films can be said to have, the cast still have some pretty strong chemistry.  I think this is a big part of what makes the film feel fun - you can tell these people are all having a good time making this movie, and it rubs off some on the audience in the process.  While I normally joke about the fact these movies are basically the only thing Vin Diesel gets to do anymore (though they seem to be trying to bring back Riddick once again) the way he plays the role after this much time, it feels less like a dig, since you can see he doesn't seem to mind the fact he's still at it.  In fact, he's arguably having some of the most fun of the cast.

"Yeah, so maybe I did make Tooth Fairy and The Game Plan...but in all fairness, you did The Pacifier and The Chronicles of Riddick.  The way I see it, we both made mistakes here..."

The other, and the much more prominent, as you may guess, is the action.  They've been at these films for six installments now, so it's safe to say they've worked out what works and what doesn't now.  To their credit, they also have avoided the other pitfall here of simply contenting themselves with doing more of the same - part of what further sold this was the fact that these movies have been escalating beyond simple car chases - so much so that this movie includes sequences involving a tank and a climax involving using cars to take down an airplane.  These are the kinds of things that make me want to be a fly on the wall during some of the storyboarding sessions just to watch these people try and pull some of these ideas out of the air.  It's that kind of bizarre sense of creativity that just dances on the line the comic Calvin & Hobbes once coined best as "This is so cool!"/"This is so stupid!"

Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen

and exhibit B.  Yes, I reiterate - they have car thieves take on a tank.

In a lot of ways, I think that's part of why I'd initially found this so daunting to write on at first.  Cause, yeah, to be perfectly honest, in a lot of ways, it is a pretty stupid movie.  At the same time though, it's a movie that's very much at home in that stupidity.  It knows what it does well, and it does it to the best of its ability.  I can't even say it necessarily feels like it revels in it so much as it gives that stupidity the full 110%...and dammit, it wins me over for that.  I won't say this is one of the best films of the year, unless I go into a coma within the next few days and wake up some time in 2014 (if this happens, I just want to state in advance, anyone who tries to drop spoilers on me for anything WILL get cut!)  For what it was as a summer appetizer got me where I was going nicely.  I'm surprised to say, I can actually see why this held its top spot as long as it did.  For this time of year, it's a quick, light piece of escapism that looks nice, moves fast, and most importantly, is infectious in its enjoyment of the ride.  This may be my most non-review review yet...and somehow, I feel strangely at peace with that.

Damn.  What has this movie done to me?

Anyway, finally announcing the project next entry.

Also, one last note for the road - don't be one of those guys that leaves as soon as the credits roll on this one.  You don't have to stay the full time, but at least stick around for a bit, they squeeze in one last bit of cheeze and a hint of a sequel that, personally, I found pretty damn entertaining.

Till next time!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Star Trek - Now With Less Tyler Perry, More Robocop

The summer blockbuster season is back up in full swing as of Iron Man 3.

With this in mind, I've since taken a look at two of the other heavy hitters of the season, which will be discussed over the next two days.  It was going to be one piece, but to be honest, this first one wound up taking more to discuss than I expected.  Further, I should warn, if you're sensitive to spoilers, you're gonna want to leave when I tell you.  I'll try and keep it free to that point, but understand that near the end, we'll be going all in.

That said, as one of the most anticipated releases of this summer, next up on deck we have Star Trek: Into Darkness J.J. Abrams's long-awaited sequel to his successful 2009 reboot.  I have to admit, I went into this with some reservations, largely thanks to the advanced spoiler that leaked out from Australian screenings regarding the film's antagonist.  However, upon hearing some good word of mouth, I decided to give the movie a shot for myself and see how it rated.

The result is admittedly, better than I was expecting, but not without its share of problems.

"OK, before we land, let's all get our stories straight for the insurance..."

The story, as spoiler-free as I can recount it, is pretty straightforward.  In the aftermath of the events of 2009's Trek, Starfleet has been entering into a more militarized mode.  Nearly seeing the Earth destroyed before their very eyes will do this.  In the middle of all of this, and after a rather elaborate opening action scene in which Kirk and Spock (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto respectively) lock horns over ideals, we learn that the Federation now has a new enemy - a former officer turned terrorist by the name of John Harrison (played by currently popular British actor Benedict Cumberbatch.)  After Harrison carries out an assault on Starfleet's leaders and makes things personal for Kirk, Kirk agrees to take the Enterprise within enemy territory to capture Harrison and bring him back to stand justice.  As he soon learns, however, things are definitely not as clear cut as he thinks, and the Enterprise finds itself drawn into a conspiracy which will shake everything they've held dear to this point.

And that's about as spoiler-free as I can make this in an overview.  Of course, I imagine most of you already knew that.

In actually discussing how it does, I suppose I should start with probably the strongest point of this film - and still the strongest from the last as well.  Just as before, the cast on this are still as good as they were in the last film.  Everyone manages to embody the classic roles well while also managing to provide enough of their own touches (and, like last time, the power players this time around again go to Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, who continues to knock the character out of the park while doing justice to the late DeForest Kelly and Simon Pegg, whose Scotty is coming closer and closer to the late James Doohan.)  Honestly, this is the one thing that I think really has carried both movies above anything else - they've nailed the right balance among themselves so that some of the best moments in this movie are just some of the character interaction.

To the new movies' credit, they ARE making a bit more concession that maybe Kirk's 'meet new species and plow them' style of diplomacy has its limits.

Likewise, the new cast and returning supporting actors help further support the movie's strong side.  Both returning actor Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike and Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus both do well put putting the face on the new Starfleet.  Cumberbatch, meanwhile, makes Harrison into an interesting, if at first enigmatic antagonist.  Compared to Eric Bana's stint as Nero in the last movie, this is the one area where I'd say the acting saw a considerable improvement (though part of that is also a matter of the script, which we'll come to later.)  About the only really shaky point in the cast comes with Alice Eve as the new incarnation of Kirk's ex (though not in this timeline) Carol Marcus.  Again, parts of this also come with the fact that she's really only given so much to work with in this character, and not much is substantial.

In the middle of the road on this one is the direction.  Honestly, one of the big problems I had with the '09 Trek, and it comes through here, is that Abrams is really just a capable director.  His work isn't problematic, but at the same time, it's not terribly memorable or unique.  He gets from point a to point b, and, jokes about lens flare aside, he can get it to look nice along the way, but it's like a shiny Christmas tree ornament - pretty, but hollow.  In this case it works because he has some very good players to make an impression in otherwise only passing story.

Karl Urban's Christmas bonus plan to sell Benedict Cumberbatch's arm to fans on eBay - legal? No way in Hell.  Profitable?  Big time.

Speaking of, we come to the script as the big sticking point.  For all those people concerned about spoilers, now might be a good time to leave, because some of the problems I am going to be discussing WILL get into spoilers, particularly for the movie's last act.  In starting, I just want to say, I don't actually think Into Darkness has a bad story.  Not as a concept, anyway.  In fact, the idea of Starfleet risking a more militarized form in the face of a cold war is a chance to go back to part of what put Star Trek on the map - using science fiction to explore contemporary issues.  The parallels in that storyline, and the idea of Starfleet striking up deals with questionable sources to make sure they can fight back, are pretty easy to interpret.  Plus, it's nice to see them acknowledge the events of the first movie rather than treat them as though it were just another day in the life of Starfleet.

again, so we're clear, if you don't want to be spoiled NOW would be a good time to leave.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Impromptu Vacation Over - Back to Work!

Well, it's been a busy week or so, but the Third Row is officially back up in business for the summer.

I will say in advance, there's a lot lined up for this month and this summer, but first I figured why not start with some of the titles have been sitting on for the better part of a month, Which brings us to now.

In starting this, I will admit - I've still got gaps in what I've seen of Danny Boyle's filmography.  I say this now just to clarify that, at least from what I've seen/read up on of his work, I like the fact he doesn't really seem to stick to a single genre.  The man has been seemingly trying new things with every movie and the results have been quite good so far.

It was with this strength in mind that I was already interested on hearing about the movie Trance.  The result was both very much in his style and also quite different from any other works I'd seen him do to this point.

The story starts off as a pretty straightforward thriller - James McAvoy works for an auction house that specializes in fine art.  On the day of one of these auctions, a robbery goes down.  At the time, we see Simon (McAvoy) carry out what is standard procedure for such events (a procedure that he recounts to the audience at the start of the movie in a pretty well edited sequence.)  Unfortunately, at the last moment, despite warnings otherwise, Simon decides to be a hero and takes a head injury for his actions.  Flash forward a few months - he's out of the hospital and praised as a hero, even though the painting he was supposed to protect from thieves remains missing.  Then he gets a call...we find out early on (not much point calling this a spoiler, since you learn it within the first 20 minutes) that Simon was an inside man on the job.  Unfortunately, that head injury has caused him to forget just where he hid the painting.  As the group gets increasingly angry with Simon, convinced he's holding out on them (resulting in one brief but very uncomfortable torture scene), they come up with an idea.  Their leader, Frank (played with a good mix of anger and pragmatism by Vincent Cassel,) decides to play a long shot - hypnotherapy to unlock the memories.  So Simon is sent to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson, in one of her best roles to come along in a while) under the pretense of remembering a lost set of keys.  She quickly gets wind something else is going on and soon inserts herself into the plans as an active participant.  What follows... again, there's only so much I can go further into things without getting into spoilers, so I'll stop there.

"See this thing here?  This is what is commonly known as a MacGuffin..."

In its narrative, the film plays with the idea of the malleability of memory.  As Elizabeth leads the group further along into trying to retrace Simon's steps, questions of trust get raised.  As we see much of the film told from the perspective of Simon, there's a degree of unreliability in his perspective, so we're left to not only suspect Franck and his team, but also Simon and Elizabeth.  This is the kind of thing that, honestly, can backfire hard in a film.  To Boyle's credit, when everything is revealed, his film manages to hold itself together fairly well.  I won't say it's perfect, as there are a couple of logistic holes that arise when all the cards have been laid out, but  in general it still manages to carry itself fairly well.

Alongside Boyle's direction, this is further helped by a fairly solid script by John Hodge and Joe Ahearne that keeps its overall setting fairly bare bones in order to avoid making the complicated reveals even worse, and by the editing by John Harris.  The latter in particular is an asset in a film like this, particularly as the movie goes on and we're left wondering at the difference between real and fabricated.  It manages to mesh the two seamlessly so one has to question each moment as they come.  One of the moments that actually really manages to speak well for this is actually in one scene where we go in knowing it's a dream.  In exploring one of the thieves' fears, we're treated to a nightmare that is incredibly visceral and actually becomes unsettling to watch as it goes on.  The style helps deliver the narrative VERY well.

Picture: Employee of the Month.

Finally, the other element that helps keep this movie afloat where it could have otherwise gone awry would be the acting.  Particularly in the case of the three principles.  On the one hand, McAvoy and Cassel are both playing takes on roles they have each done before.  On the other, the way they're handled within this film is actually done in such a way that it actually manages to avoid being typecasting, as the two each skew the expectations of their character types as the movie goes on.  As the third in the trifecta, like I said above, Dawson delivers one of her better performances in recent years.  While she definitely holds her own within a very dicey situation, particularly when dealing with Cassel, it never feels like she's been made superhuman within the film.  She still has her faults, and Dawson works those in, but at the same time, she's also not a completely passive element in this story, and in many ways, is actually the main character.

In general, it does feel hard to really discuss both the pros and cons of this movie, since many of them do involve going into the story and some of its twists. I will admit I've done that for other films before, and will likely do it again in the future, but in a film like this, where to pull one thread eventually leads to unravelling the works, I feel like I'd be overstepping my boundaries by blowing the whole movie for you.

Without going into spoilers, I will acknowledge this isn't a film for everyone.  It can be, as I said above, rather visceral and at some points graphic (I can see why some would argue the film seems to go overboard with it, though I admit I wasn't too put off.)  If you can ride it and follow along with the ride Boyle and his team are willing to take you on, however, it may be one of the better mind-benders that's come out in recent years.

I could make a REALLY horrible joke about blowing minds here...but there are limits even to my dickishness.

Keep an eye out sometime in the next day or so.  I plan to be announcing a new project for this summer that hopefully should go well.
...this is what optimism feels like?  God, how do I kill it?

Till next time!