May 30, 2013

Repo Man

Repo Man (1984) is just about the weirdest movie I've seen in a long time. It's set in Los Angeles, the grungy Los Angeles that resembles every other grungy city full of rundown buildings and displaced persons, and there are enough displaced persons in Repo Man to populate an entire city. It's a punk scifi satire from British writer-director Alex Cox, and it stars Emilio Estevez as an aimless youth who begins working for a team of hardboiled, loony repo men headed by Harry Dean Stanton. All the repo men (and there are several "companies" of them--rival repo men and women--in this film) are on the lookout for a Chevy Malibu being driven around by a doddering old fool who might be crazy or might be drunk or maybe both: there's a 20,000 dollar price tag on the car, and the government's after it too. Men in antiseptic-looking white uniforms and gas masks keep popping up, scooping up dead bodies off the streets and placing them into big government trucks, and there's apparently some glowing, glimmering nuclear waste in the trunk of the car.

The problem with Repo Man is that it never fully crystallizes. Alex Cox apparently had a lot of ideas zooming around in his brain when he wrote and directed this, his first feature, after graduating from UCLA's film school. This is exactly the kind of mishmash a film student would come up with. It has some clever ideas--there are plenty of amusing gags throughout the film that catch your ear or your eye--but a lot of unformed ones too, and the unformed ideas take over. Cox keeps cutting to different scenes with his characters and never allows for enough time to develop either the people or the situations. The minute you feel that the movie might start to gel, he cuts. And this turns out to be a real liability. Repo Man is a junkyard of a movie: all kinds of intriguing parts, loaded with meaning and cleverness, but ultimately disorganized to a fault.

Its biggest asset turns out to be its sense of humor, which has the effect of winning over the viewer. We might feel lost--and we might feel completely at the mercy of a mad director who has no idea where he's going--but at least we're enjoying the chaotic mess of a movie along the way. And Estevez is a fun lead. He's kind of a prick, going after what he wants with no scruples whatsoever: he propositions a girl as though he's asking her for a piece of gum, and he tells his parents he loves them because he's after a once-promised cash gift from his father. (He's disappointed to find that they've already sent the money to some phony televangelist.)

The supporting cast includes Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Susan Barnes, Fox Harris, Tom Finnegan, Del Zamora, Eddie Velez, Zander Schloss, Jennifer Balgobin, Dick Rude, Miguel Sandoval, and Vonetta McGee. 92 min. ½

May 28, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The problem with The Great Gatsby movies (count them: four since 1926) is that Fitzgerald's prose is too damn good, too lusciously over-the-top, not to be read. This most recent filmization of what I would consider an almost certainly unfilmable novel is director Baz Luhrman's wet dream: he gets to show off his affection for the gaudy, garish, decadent opulence of the New York of the Jazz Age, and then play his usual anachronistic games by substituting rap music as the background melody to the wild orgies that gave the Roaring 20s their bite.

The casting isn't half bad: At thirty-eight, Leonardo DiCaprio finally looks thirty, and he's good as Jay Gatsby: he's got that glint in his eye which betrays the secrets haunting his character's labyrinthine mind, and that charming grin that locks the viewer into place as a willing participant, going along for the carnival ride concocted by Jay Gatsby, a sort of social magician if you will. He's the ultimate American: the man with enough charm and brains to re-invent himself from the poor farm-boy to the rich, enigmatic darling of the New York social scene. All the time I kept thinking that this is what might have happened to Pip, the orphan from Great Expectations, if morality hadn't gotten in the way at the end. No, DiCaprio finally seems well-cast here, as he was in Django Unchained, playing a part that was so much fun and so much out of the ordinary.

Now that DiCaprio has played so many iconic roles--Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, etc.--I'm hoping he's gotten these Oscar-baiting movies out of his system. Perhaps DiCaprio isn't gunning solely for a golden statue, perhaps these are just the most challenging and interesting roles he's being offered, but up until Django I hadn't been very impressed with him or his movies of late. Everything about his performances seemed predictable and tired. He's not particularly different in Gatsby, but it may be that the role itself finally fits him to a tee, and the allure of Fitzgerald's tragic hero rubs off onto DiCaprio the way it did with his character in Titanic with all the fangirls shrieking over him. He's irresistibly handsome, but also hopelessly idealistic. But with the latter characteristic, the movie ignores something crucial in the novel: Gatsby seems aware--whether it bugs him or not--of Daisy's true nature. Gatsby tells Nick that her voice is "full of money," which suggests a deeper cynicism in him than the movie wants to display.

As the vapid spoiled rich girl Daisy Buchanan, Carey Mulligan is also quite convincing: she's petite enough and pale and unassuming enough to be credible as someone whose thoughtlessness is a worse crime than someone else's genocide. This is ultimately the horrible joke of The Great Gatsby: it's a story that applauds the men's pursuit and domination of the women, who turn out to be so shallow and self-interested that we no longer sympathize with them for being treated like objects. They are objects, and they've learned how to be happy within such conditions. (Now I understand what she meant when a friend once told me she disliked how sexist Fitzgerald's novel was.) Daisy says a woman can only survive if she's a fool, and it's apparent that this is an axiom she's taken to heart: but it's also a cop-out, and it's how she gets away with murder and keeps Gatsby at her beck and call.

And then there's Tobey Maguire playing Nick Carraway, Daisy's cousin and Gatsby's neighbor, the narrator of the story and the limpid bystander who gets to live vicariously through his friends. He's a blank, impressionable man, rendered impotent by the privilege of his upbringing. Gatsby, the iconic self-made man, stands next to him as a god, and Nick spends the entire novel (and film) giving alms to him.

But Maguire lacks something: he says his lines clumsily at times, and while his goofy gaucheness seems appropriate for the role of Nick, it also makes him seem more pathetic. He's the least interesting character of the bunch, which may be the very reason Fitzgerald made him a narrator: it ultimately gives him more authority, not less, which is some kind of perverse irony, I guess. But the sleepwalking performance doesn't do much for the film, and what's worse, Nick is our intercessor, dumping out and sorting through the exposition like an archivist. We don't have to do any of the work. It feels forced and obvious, and as much as Luhrman wants to bask in the visual splendor of his wanna-be masterpiece, The Great Gatsby makes the fatal mistake of relying too heavily on telling us information rather than showing it.

What is shown are the wild parties with naughtily-dressed dancers and champagne gushing and oozing out of bottles and confetti floating in the air and Chinese lanterns beaming down on the ground from the trees and strung-out Jazz Age loonies dancing until the dawn and passed-out guests being scooped up by the servants in the sobering morning light. This is all sort of impressive, but sort of cheap: much of the production seems to have been designed on the computer (and indeed, they have been pushing this as the latest 3-D experience, which is beyond irritating), so nothing seems real. I suppose one could argue that that's what Luhrman was going for--an unreal world--but it displaces us. We're left with the plot being fed to us via silver spoon. Granted, Luhrman manages to capture that mysterious pull of Fitzgerald's novel to a degree. He just doesn't succeed all the way. This latest incarnation is too full of eye candy to ever focus its grasp on anything more than a lot of sloppy ideas about love and hope. It never gets at the ache of materialism that Fitzgerald really got across in the book. There are glimmers of that, though, and I don't think it's as bad as some critics have said. It's just proof that The Great Gatsby doesn't ever translate totally to film.

With Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, and Jason Clarke. 143 min.

May 26, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

I felt compelled to go back and re-familiarize myself with the plot of Star Trek (2009) in order to be fresh enough to see the sequel, although I must say it wasn't necessary. Star Trek Into Darkness is a lucid follow-up, both visually and structurally, and for that I was extremely grateful to the filmmakers. Why other movies of this variety aren't following suit is baffling to me, but generally when you go see a big, eye-popping fantasy movie like this, ten to one you'll have no idea what's going on, particularly during scenes of large-scale conflict. It's usually a combination of unfocused editing and camera work--which is a foolish attempt to tell a story through chaos--and sloppy, user's manual style writing.

I'm far more compliant with big movies that operate the way Star Trek did: they tell a vivid story visually, and are bent on having fun. Of course, the studios are bent on wowing the viewer with marvelous special effects (especially now that everyone wants 3-D, even from The Great Gatsby!). The studios, who churn out these expensive adventure flicks quicker than second-tier public universities churn out Bachelor's degrees, somehow manage to let someone like director J.J. Abrams inject enough good in with the bad, neutralizing it or when he's really on fire, transcending it. Abrams doesn't spend a lot of time trying to create new problems: he's more interested in letting these characters interact inside the old ones, and that is what gives the two latest Star Trek films their pull, their ability to make people like me--who generally despise giant epic fantasy movies--go see them.

Admittedly, Into Darkness began to wear on me toward the finale: there were about three too many false endings, and I was apparently invested enough in the story and the characters to be annoyed when something happened that I didn't like, but it was still an enjoyable two hours. There's always a delicate balancing act for what I must assume is the middle film of a trilogy: the middle entry has to move things along to a resolution while simultaneously not resolving them ultimately, so that Part Three can manage the finishing touches.

The plot picks up with Captain Kirk (the magnetic Chris Pine once again filling William Shatner's shoes) and Doctor Spock (Zachary Quinto) fleeing an angry, primitive tribe on an unknown planet that is enveloped in red foliage. These plants look something like potpourri if it grew naturally. The crew of the Enterprise is trying to neutralize a volcanic eruption that would unquestionably wipe out the entire race of the indigenous people living on the planet, but these people don't know that. There's some argument over the momentous act of allowing them to see the ship emerge from the sea and into the air (since they won't have any clue what it is), and we're left with this tribe tracing an image of the vessel in the sand. Surely this is a little bit of foreshadowing. Abrams leaves it behind for another movie.

There are plenty of other complications that hound the crew of the Enterprise once the story gets back to Earth, where we find that the Starfleet is under attack from an unknown human assailant (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who's equal parts rogue and British mastermind and plays both of these to the hilt). As is to be expected, there are various twists and turns and clashes of character that occur here, most of which are either believable or at the very least intriguing and therefore worthwhile. Captain Kirk leads his crew in a retaliatory mission after Cumberbatch bombs their archives building in London, and soon we discover that he's got a lot more on his mind than destroying public records.

The design of the film tries to merge old with new: London-set two hundred or so years in the future--has that "space station" look mingled with remnants of the Victorian and Georgian eras: an old Tudor hospital that has a futuristic expansion melded onto it like an artificial limb where the real magic happens. The trick of designing a realistic looking future world has always been somewhat of a fools' errand: the technology of 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't look anything like reality, but perhaps this is the advantage of setting a movie in the 2200s: who in 2013 will be around to notice that they did or didn't get it right?

The movie has a lot more energy than it knows what to do with, which might explain why it clocks in at two hours and ten minutes or so, but feels half-an-hour longer: every time one problem gets resolved, another one is compounded, and the solutions grow increasingly less convincing. But by the time you get to the end, you're so emotionally invested, you can't do much but hang on and let whatever comes come. I suppose this is one of the signs of an effective movie, or perhaps of an affective one. I was certainly riveted, but at some point it started to feel like overkill.

What saves Star Trek Into Darkness--and this is true of just about any movie, really--are the characters, who have a ridiculous banter and a bond between them which is genuinely disarming and fun to watch. And I suppose there's a bit more weight to this sequel, even though I think I enjoyed the previous one more. Abrams seems bent on not treating this like an unsatisfying middle film: it has its own beginning and end, even if the story threads are meant to connect both backwards and forwards. Abrams, and his scriptwriters--Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof--do a good job of keeping this balance and making it work--most of the time. And yes, the visuals were stunning, even if some of them seemed unconvincing. (One example: the photos taken of the after effects of the London bomb: the people and buildings in the pictures look too XBox 360.) Still, cinematographer Dan Mindel manages some nice little touches. For example, he juxtaposes two scenes with something being dropped into a glass: in the first one, a ring (filled with some kind of explosive material) sets off the explosion of the archives building in London. Then we cut to a round ice cube falling into Captain Kirk's drink at a bar in San Francisco.

If I have any hopes for this genre, they are rooted in the fact that these two Star Trek movies managed to show a non-fanboy a good time. With Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Noel Clarke, and Leonard Nimoy. ½