This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.

Pacific Rim by Guillermo del Toro – 100th post!

Pacific Rim by Guillermo Del Toro

As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

The fights are the main attraction. You either go along with that premise or not, there’s no two ways about it. In reality, it’s probably more resourceful to bomb these giant monsters or shoot them with a very big cannon, instead of making giant robots to punch them to death. But where’s the fun in that? Suffice to say, the fights are a tense visceral experience and the scale of everything delivers an epic sense of awe. They do everything to up the ante and surprise the audience. Special moves are only used in climatic moments and there’s just something about a giant robot using a boat as a bat that’s just hilarious and jaw-dropping. These fights run very dangerously to the cinematic equivalent of watching somebody play a video game. That’s why I like the drifting mind meld concept, because it solves that problem by it properly adding both physical and emotional conflict to the pilots controlling the Jaegars as well. It focuses to how well these pilots are controlling the Jaegars as opposed to how the Jaegars are fighting the Kaijus.

The fights are shot somewhat tightly but for a very good reason. Shooting the fights close holds the tension and injects the sense of jeopardy and stake into every exchange in the fight choreography. I imagine if the fights were covered entirely in long wide shots, it would lose that sense of scale and the fights would look silly. That said, I had no problem following what’s going on because emotionally it felt right to be watching them that way. And personally, it was doubly fun that the film was set in Hong Kong.

There’s been a common complaint that the characters lacked development, I disagree.  Basically these people all have baggage and they have to band together as a team or fall apart. The film spends time building arcs for its ensemble cast, and it’s sufficient to justify the epic robot monster fights. That’s it, so I don’t understand that complaint. Adding neat little quirks or oddball idiosyncrasies to these characters would have been overkill.

The dialogue is one of the film’s weaker portions. However, depending on how well each actor was able to milk the lines, I was still able to have fun with it. I couldn’t stop cackling at Charlie Day’s fast-paced high-pitched deliveries, who rises above being “Dr. Exposition” and balances the film with comic relief. Day’s exchange with the rival math-based scientist played by Burn Gorman is essentially a cartoon-level quarrel equivalent to Daffy Duck arguing with Bugs Bunny. The math Gorman’s scientist applies is is grade-school at best. Ron Perlman facetiously entertains in flying colors as the Kaiju body parts black marketer Hannibal Chau, the most asshole character name ever created. Idris Elba also adds significant weight as the team leader. So for me, the side characters take the cake from the Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi storyline, which was played very straight for story purposes.

Guillermo del Toro is aware of current big-budget blockbuster tropes and differentiates himself from those trends in Pacific Rim. There are no homage or geek references to distract or alienate the audience. Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako character is not sexualized or filmed through a salivating male gaze; she is a real human character with a story and treated as such. The film doesn’t play like a military recruitment advertisement nor has any blatant nationalistic or jingoistic intentions. Perhaps one of my favorite things about Pacific Rim is it tonally divorces itself from post-9/11 sentimentality. The world has its own distinct fictional reality, where destruction is not linked by evoking imagery, memories or emotions from September 11th. Civilians evacuate from buildings, hide in shelters and the streets are clear for the Jaegers to bash the Kaijus. Most importantly, del Toro never dwells heavily on despair or hopelessness and the audience can enjoy the city-wide destruction guilt-free. All those things counted together, Pacific Rim is truly a breath of fresh air amidst current blockbuster aesthetics and a film made with the most earnest intentions.

Without an A-list star, a love story or a recognizable established franchise (i.e. Godzilla or Transformers) , it’s not hard to see why Pacific Rim didn’t score at the box office. As Snakes On A Plane proved at its theatrical release, the geek fan base doesn’t represent much of the core population. The geeks merely are just the most vocal. Perhaps other parts of the demographic are alienated just by the material itself, despite that del Toro is aiming to entertain everybody. If there’s one underdog movie people should give a chance to this summer, let it be Pacific Rim. It’s a passionate earnest film made by a director that loves the material and wants to deliver good clean fun with a positive message for everybody. His attention to every little detail exudes his excitement for the material; that passion rubbed off on me and elevated my enjoyment.  It’s the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this summer. Guillermo del Toro, give me a hug!

World War Z by Marc Forster

World War Z by Marc Forster

Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations employee who must travel the world to find a way to stop a zombie pandemic.

I haven’t read the original novel going into World War Z. There have been some complaints that this film departs heavily  from the novel, but apparently the novel reads like a series of personal accounts. If that’s the case, it’s probably more effective to experience the story through a first-person perspective for a film. On with the review…

The PG-13 rating has always been an interesting constraint for horror movies as it cancels the use of gore and forces more ingenuity in creating the scares. Marc Forster creates a constant frantic sense of jeopardy and properly raises the stakes. Even though it’s possible to outsmart and escape from these running zombies, we fear that the characters will eventually fatigue and lose from being outnumbered. The opening set piece was shot too shaky and cut too fast and it seemed like Marc Forster didn’t learn anything from the action in Quantum of Solace. But the set pieces improve as the film progresses.

By the finale, I was fully immersed into this world, alert of everything that can startle the fast-running zombies and looking out for every possible human mistake. I was cringing at every door squeak and wished a can of WD-40 would just fall out of the sky on their laps. That said, the characters don’t make typical stupid horror movie mistakes. Even in times of risk and with the occasional accidental mistake, they take the proper precautions and do the most sensical thing.

Zombie films typically are set in a town or city. What makes World War Z an unique experience is its international scope, we get to see the entire world react to the zombie outbreak. It gives a political and cultural cross-section of how different countries would react to such a catastrophic event. It holds a mirror to our current world. This was the most interesting part of it for personally as it sets itself apart from George Romero films or The Walking Dead.

The most valuable Brad Pitt brings to the film besides his star power is the big-budget production values itself. The cast performs fine but it’s by no means a performance-driven film. The studio has decided to produce a sequel, as the war in the novel lasts for a decade. And it will probably continue to draw from the U.N reports in the novel. Depending if Brad Pitt returns to the role or if the story unfolds with a new protagonist, the story can go either which way. I’ll probably see it then but for now, the epilogue doesn’t tease me that much.

4:44 Last Day on Earth by Abel Ferrara

4:44 Last Day on Earth by Abel Ferrara

A successful actor and his younger painter girlfriend spend their last day together in New York City before the world comes to an end at 4:44am.

Apparently there is no chaos on the night of the apocalypse, people casually hang out at bars, they chitchat on Skype, the streets are clear for safe driving and you can even have Vietnamese food delivered to your apartment. The apocalypse itself is not much discussed, but everybody seems to be relatively accepting of their ordeal.

What drew me to the film was Willem Dafoe in an apocalyptic movie. To cut it short, this movie has no character, no plot, and does nothing interesting with the apocalypse. It wasted Willem Dafoe. His character Cisco appears to be concerned about the end but cannot seem to get his priorities straight. He talks to himself on the rooftop of his New York apartmett, wanders around to see friends and contacts his loved ones on Skype to tell them he loves them. He claims to love his girlfriend Skye but doesn’t do much to show it other than making love to her. Is there more he can do to show them he cares? What does he want? I am not really sure.

Shanyn Leigh is really horrid as Skye. To be fair, I haven’t seen her other works. I don’t know if it’s a just bad performance or the lack of character that she is given to play. The worst part is I think it’s both. Skye is annoying in the same way as Maria Schneider was from Last Tango in Paris. She’s pretentious, fragile and passive. Could she be frail because the world is ending? I have no clue. I never found myself sympathizing or rooting for her. There’s a scene where Shanyn Leigh witnesses Willem Dafoe talking to his ex-wife via Skype and goes hysterical and it is cringing to watch. The rest of the time all she does is sit around on the floor working on her abstract painting. When one coat of paint is done, she sets down an electric fan to dry it. Yes! You get to watch paint dry in this movie! And you know what? It’s not a day at the zoo. If they weren’t going to anything with her character, Ferrara may as well have casted someone more attractive or more interesting to play the part. Yes, I know that’s a horrible thing to say but there was nothing going on to keep me invested in these characters or situations. None of these characters act believably to their situation.

Just to tread back for a minute, there is nothing wrong with having characters paint on film. It’s a pretty tricky thing to make work, but it’s been done before. Thus far, I have only see it in 2 Takeshi Kitano films (Hana-bi and Achilles and the Tortoise), he manages to develop character with his characters painting. In Hana-bi, a retired policeman who is confined to a wheelchair is given a set of paints and a beret by the protagonist. He starts to paint and we see a series of his paintings as they improve and become livelier paintings. We see that he slowly finds the purpose in his life again and it’s quite poetic. There’s nothing even close to the craft that can pull that off in this film. I did not expect it but I’m citing Kitano to say that Abel Ferrara does not make attempt anything interesting at all.

What makes it worse is there are archival footage of the Dalai Lama shown on Cisco and Skye’s television to directly tell you the director’s message. I have seen this level of filmmaking during my 2nd year of film school. I worked on an apocalyptic-themed student film similar to this movie. A real raspberry. That 14-minute short ended with a series of archival footage splicing Gandi, the Dalai Lama, Stalin and Hitler together, of which the director reasoned that’s what made his film a social commentary. Assuming Abel Ferrara has more experience than my idiot classmate, how could you not know how uninteresting this was? What was he trying to say about people at the end?

Having seen a series of apocalyptic films done this year, I say go see Melancholia or Perfect Sense. 4:44 Last Day on Earth frustrated and angered me till the middle, and towards I just decided to let go and not to get mad over this movie. I do not know how one can manage to make the apocalypse boring but this certainly takes that mantle.

Though I’d really like to keep the number to that Vietnamese restaurant. In case the end is near, I like to have some Pho delivered to my place.

Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols

A man gets intense apocalyptic nightmares. He hides this from his family and begins to build a shelter, but this begins to strain his relationship with his family and the community.Is he just plain crazy or is there something bad on the horizon?

Michael Shannon gives a subtle layered performance as Curtis LaForche. He communicates the difficulty of having an unexplainable problem. He feels something bad is about to happen. It’s nothing concrete but something about the world doesn’t seem right. He loves his wife, but doesn’t want to worry her. He communicates all this with his face.

Jessica Chastain is a believable onscreen wife and mother. A lot of cinematic mothers tend to be unconvincing and this is noteworthy. Most cinematic wives have too much makeup on, do not carry enough worry in their eyes and most importantly they perform without a familiarity  of their own spaces. When Jessica Chastain does household chores or embraces her own child, she does it with a muscle memory as if she performs these tasks daily. When Curtis and Samantha argue, it is a very realistic portray of how a married couple fights. This added a lot of believability to the story, especially when the central husband and wife relationship comes into strain. Actually yeah, I’d like a wife like Jessica Chastain in this movie.

You know how when you continually look at leaves being tossed in the wind or waves crashing upon a beach, you start to space out and ponder about the workings of the universe? The film’s cinematography captures that feeling exactly in scenes where Curtis looks at his environment around him with suspicion. In Take Shelter, nature is an uncertain place. Underlying beneath it’s beauty is something bigger behind that’s going on that we are unaware of. To say it’s beautiful cinematography is almost missing the point, it’s definitely the deepest, most communicative cinematography I have seen this year.

This is Jeff Nichols’ second film. He has mastered the art of slow-boiled tension, which is a storytelling technique that is on the brink of extinction in an age where the short-attention gene is on the rise. I also love how the story moves forward and how fresh story points are revealed. There’s not much Basil Exposition, they just jump right into it and at times the audiences is set to figure out the context. David Wingo’s soundtrack is ambiguous and embodies a creeping sensation of foreboding. And along with the story, this ambiguity uneases the audience. After all, do we want Curtis to be crazy and committed to an asylum? Or do we want to see something big bad happen?

The story has a strong grasp of how the audience feels about the story in any given moment. It knows when to slow down and does so, particularly in the shelter sequence where Samantha and Curtis discuss whether to exit the shelter. You want and dread the conclusion at the same time. The ending is truly something. It’s an glorious epic finale.

And I have to say, I was very pleased to be manipulated this way.

Melancholia by Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier loves watching a woman fall apart, even in the face of Armageddon.

Why does he love watching a woman in a hysterical frantic state? I don’t know. Does Lars von Trier have issues with women? It’s very suspect. Is it ultimately interesting onscreen? Yes.

If there is such a thing as beauty in destruction, as beauty in the total surrender of hope, Lars von Trier has somehow captured it and crafted an unique tale about surrender. The first 40 minutes of the film were bewildering and it slowly creeps up on you as you understand the film’s syntax and what it’s trying to achieve. There’s no point writing movie mistakes about the scientific errors of planetary collision for this movie. Von Trier’s scientific set up is obviously metaphorical. What he is really after is human emotions going haywire in the midst of destruction.

Speaking of emotions, this is Kirsten Dunst’s role and the film solely hangs on her performance. It’s a performance that draws all colours of human emotion. She plays Justine’s inner conflict as someone who is trying to care about the people around her against the growing part of herself that has ceased to care about anything at all. Most of her actions don’t appear to make much sense to the other people around her and it’s fascinating to watch because the audience can make sense out of it.

There is a very dark strain of humor running underneath this film. Dunst’s character Justine, in a deep state of depression, is taking the end of the world better than her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, acting as her straight man). There is a noteworthy scene where Claire pleads to Justine asking them to have a nice meal together over presumably the last night of their lives. Justine scoffs at the stupidity of the suggestion, as if trying to put a positive spin at the end of of the world is taking 5 steps back away from the depression that she has already achieved. It’s emotionally complicated, heavily morose and yet hilarious underneath. To find humor in the face of Armageddon is an achievement within itself.

Seriously, what else can you expect when Udo Kier is the wedding planner?

You laugh, don’t you?