Month: May 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA THE FIRST AVENGER – 5/27/14

2011

This awkwardly titled yawner was directed by Joe Johnston, who also directed The Rocketeer (1991). I’d rather watch that one.

One thing I’ve noticed about these Marvel movies – people are always finding things. This time around, it starts with some generic government guys very obviously finding Captain America. Then we flash back to 1942. THIS IS A HUGE PROBLEM. When I saw that the first scene of the movie is in the present day, I was thunderstruck. This is just awful, awful storytelling. I’ll explain later.

Right off the bat, the creativity blows me away. The bad guy is played by Agent Smith from The Matrix. Can you believe it? What daring casting! Wow, and Toby Jones is a creepy bug-eyed Nazi scientist. Really playing against type. Tommy Lee Jones as a gruff leather-faced old army guy? You can tell they wanted to go in completely new and unexpected directions with this one.

The dialog is equally inspiring. “Boy,” some guy says, reading a newspaper about the war, “a lotta guys gettin’ killed over there!”  “Faster ladies. My grandma has more life in her,” says a drill instructor. I bet Full Metal Jacket wishes it had lines as original as that!  “The son of a bitch did it,” says the skeptical old military guy after the successful outcome of an experiment. Wow, did Dashiell Hammett write this? “You told me I was meant for more than this. Did you mean that?” Captain America asks his girlfriend. “Every word,” she replies. She meant all seven words?

Agent Smith is the bland, uninteresting Johann Schmidt a.k.a. Red Skull (although that’s how everyone knows the character, only one person in the movie calls him that). He gets his hands on the Tesseract, the unnamed MacGuffin of the film that becomes the MacGuffin of The Avengers, too. More creativity! Just like how the villain in Thor is also the villain in The Avengers and re-appears in Thor: The Dark World. Or how we get to see Howard Stark, the father of Iron Man. Why do we need these constant dumb cross-over appearances? It’s almost as though Marvel knows that none of its lame-ass heroes (other than Spiderman) can actually stand on their own.

One might ask, “What does Red Skull want with the Tesseract?” Well, Red Skull was a Nazi agent in the comics, so I assume he’s going to use it to make those ubiquitous Nazi super-weapons (like the jet packs in The Rocketeer). But it turns out that he wants it for himself, so that he can… uh… your guess is as good as mine.

That’s another major flaw for this movie. You have no idea what the bad guy is up to or why he wants to do anything. The “climax” of the film feels like anything but – we’re just told that Red Skull wants to “destroy half the world.” Why? How? With what? The flamethrowers and laser tanks we saw earlier? Red Skull is making all these weapons, but the good guys just blow them up right away – we never get any scenes of Tommy Lee muttering, “Damn, these laser tanks are kicking our asses. We might lose the war.” That would have helped lend some urgency.

Instead of creating, you know, a plot, the movie piles on the redundant characters and meaningless scenes. For instance, Red Skull is introduced as “a brilliant scientist.” Then why does he need Toby Jones to be his scientist? Oh, right – so he can get captured and conveniently reveal the villain’s (vague) plan at the end. He serves no other purpose in the film.

But thank goodness we get all the trappings of a generic Marvel superhero movie! We get a generic “failing at Basic Training” montage that would put Paul Blart: Mall Cop to shame, complete with the bully who needlessly sabotages the efforts of our hero! We get a generic “hero on roof of villain’s car while villain shoots up at him” sequence! We get the “hero chases an aircraft as it takes off” scene!

Here’s something else that bugged me: what’s with the stupid two-fisted salute and the “Hail Hydra” instead of “Heil Hitler”? Why wasn’t Red Skull a Nazi agent working for Hitler, like he was in the comics? Here’s the answer – Marvel is greedy. For all their preening about how faithful they are to the original characters and stories, they wanted to make as much cash as possible with this movie. Look for a swastika – you won’t find one. In a World War II movie where the villain is a Nazi and the hero is famous for fighting the Nazis. This is unacceptable, cheesy, and awkward.

Captain America is far too long. I got to 33:48 and realized there hadn’t been a single action scene yet – 25% of the way through the movie! At 50 minutes in, we still weren’t shown Red Skull’s actual face. After 81 minutes, the only action we got was a car chase and the “base rescue” sequence. It just dragged. Just because you can afford to make a movie 123 minutes long doesn’t mean you have to.

I wanted to spend some more time on how impossibly diverse Captain America’s team is (a black guy AND an Asian guy? How integrated was the Army in the 1940s?) and how lame the villain’s “death” is (he picks up the MacGuffin and gets zapped into space… come on, Marvel, kill a bad guy for once!). What I really want to address is the ending.

We see Captain America open his eyes at 1:50:40… and since we already know they dug him out of the ice at the very beginning of the movie, we know he’s waking up in the present day.

At 1:52 he realizes there’s something fishy about the radio broadcast. Yeah, because it’s not the 1940s. It’s the present day. We know. You told us two hours ago.

At 1:52:43, he runs into Times Square and realizes that it’s the present day… which we all already know, since they gave it away at the beginning of the movie.

Cars suddenly pull up all around him and we hear, “At ease, soldier.” We see Nicholas L. Fury, and he’s already standing in the middle of the street while his agents are still opening their car doors behind him. HOW DID HE GET THERE SO FAST?

At 1:53:20, Fury tells Cap that he’s been asleep for nearly 70 years. But we already know that, because it was revealed at the beginning of the movie. Then the movie ends with him realizing that the girl he loved is either super old, or super dead.

Damn. What a downer. The end! Sleep well, kids!

This whole sequence was completely unnecessary. That scene could have been powerful. We could have shared Cap’s shock as he realized the world he knew was long gone. We could have been overwhelmed by the lights and sounds of Times Square right along with him. We could have felt a moment of genuine shared emotion with this character.

But no. We couldn’t. Because we knew exactly what was going on the whole time. BECAUSE THE MOVIE GAVE IT AWAY IN THE VERY FIRST SCENE. This is pathetic. This is a storytelling disaster.

This is Captain America: The First Avenger.

Oh, and the one girl they take to the “world of the future” expo looked a lot like the chinchilla girl from SNL. It wasn’t her. But I got really excited for a second.

DON JON – 5/19/14

2013. Disgusting.

This movie is gross. The theme is gross. The accents are annoying and gross. Tony Danza in a wife-beater is really, really gross. I was repulsed in a very visceral way during almost every minute of this film. I’m glad I decided to watch it.

The titular Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt – more like Joseph Gordon LEAVE-it! As in LEAVE this movie! RIMSHOT! Some Mad Magazine-style hilarity there) is a Pauly D-type guy with a reputation as a Casanova. You can picture this character without even seeing the movie – he drives a muscle car, he has big pecs, his hair is always slicked back, etc etc. Unsurprisingly, the movie is set in New Jersey.

Can I ask – when did the state of New Jersey become cool? Is it because the obese governor goes on late-night talk shows? Is it because there’s a (noisy, crowded, expensive, storm-ravaged) beach there? New Jersey is to the rest of America what MLS is to sports – nobody likes it, nobody really sees it, but there seems to be a concerted effort to ram it down our throats. While we’re at it, when did Tony Danza become cool? How does he keep getting work?

Sorry. Anyway, Jon has sex with numerous women (which he “humorously” confesses to his priest throughout the movie), but what he really loves is pornography. When he meets Barbara (Scarrllett Johhannssonn), however, he falls head-over-heels for her. He gives up his womanizing and, because she really hates it, he tries to give up watching porn. Knowing that, you know what the big complication is – she finds out he still watches it by looking at his browser history, which he apparently had no idea about.

This twist is not only predictable but dumb, too. Why? Because there was a lengthy exchange earlier in the movie where Jon chides his dad (Tony Danza) for not knowing what TiVo is. So he’s aware of TiVo, but not that there’s a browser history? He owns a Mac! How does he not know about browser history?!?

While things are going south with Barbara, Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore). Her character seems to have no purpose at first, but since she’s on the movie poster, it’s pretty obvious what happens. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll basically give everything away: Jon ends up with Esther in the end, because they “really connect” over the fact that her husband and son died in a car crash the previous year. Romance! Joseph Gordon-Levitt is 33. Julianne Moore is 54. The intense sex scene between the two of them nearly gave me the dry heaves.

What inspired Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make a movie where the main issues are pornography and masturbation?* Why do we have to suffer through the horrendous Jersey accents? Has society degenerated so far that the exciting revelation for our hero is “meaningless sex isn’t good?” Even as he burns in Hell, I’m pretty sure Osama Bin Laden sees this movie as proof that he really was right about American culture.

The producer is named Ram Bergman, which is one of the coolest names I’ve ever seen.

People in this movie use the term “smash” as slang for having sex. That’s awkward, because I use “smash” as slang for taking a dump.

*I know, you could argue that the movie is about how porn sets up unrealistic expectations for guys just like romantic movies set them up for girls, etc… but the number of scenes devoted to JGL posted up at his laptop surely dwarf any that might have been spent developing a “deeper” theme.

Iron-Clad Laws of Driving

Taking a brief Netflix break, I’m indulging in a little DALsTALs (Dirk A. Linthicum’s Thoughts On Life) action.

If you’re like me, you pray each and every day for some cataclysm that will send humanity back to a simpler, pre-Industrial age. Chances are you’re not like me, but I think you can still sympathize with how annoying the morning commute can be. Culled from the past eight months of taking the Pennsylvania Turnpike to work, here are some of my Iron-Clad Laws of Driving:

1.) If you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, every light will be red – but if you’re trying to text while you’re stopped, every light will be green.

2.) If you’re in a rush, the people ahead of you will start to turn into driveways/roads that you’ve never seen anyone driving on before.

3.) Late at night, ALL car headlights will look like police car headlights.

4.) Approaching a driveway you need to enter, pedestrians will always be moving at the perfect speed to block your path at the exact moment of arrival.

5.) Approaching a driveway you need to swing out to enter, a car will always be coming in the opposite direction, forcing you to stop.

6.) When coming up on a biker riding in the street, there will always be a car coming in the opposite direction. Furthermore you, the biker, and the car will be moving at the exact speed necessary to bring you together all at once, forcing you to stop and wait in order to pass the biker. The biker is always on your side of the road; this never happens for drivers coming the opposite way.

7.) If you decide to wait for an oncoming car before making a turn, it will immediately reduce its speed so that you sit there like a dope waiting for it to go by.

8.) The aggressive driver zipping in and out of traffic and speeding recklessly will never get pulled over… but YOU will the moment one of your brake lights goes out. (See also: the jerk on the motorcycle who passes people on the shoulder)

9.) The slow driver ahead of you on the one-lane road will unfailingly be heading the exact same place you are.

10.) If, for any reason, you have to drive slower than usual (i.e. only 5 miles above the speed limit), the slob who wants to go 50 will always jet up right behind you.

11.) The 18-wheeler with the unsettling tendency to drift over the line will always end up right next to you in dense traffic.

12.) When other drivers want to change lanes, YOU are the perfect person for them to cut in front of. Never the car in front of or behind you.

13.) Go ahead and try to be the nice guy at a four-way stop. The driver you’re trying to wave ahead will refuse the courtesy and counter-wave you.

14.) Good luck obeying the right of way at a four-way stop; the driver who obviously arrived after you will cut you off anyway.

15.) Good luck being the third driver at a four-way stop; the other two drivers will engage in a time-wasting politeness war to see who goes first. Then the fourth guy will cut you off.

16.) That pedestrian you waited for at the cross-walk WILL NOT hurry. In fact, they might walk slower across the intersection than they do elsewhere.

17.) Your reverse lights are not visible to people in parking lots; they’ll look at them, look at you trying to back out, and then continue on their way as if they didn’t see anything.

18.) Street lights will flicker out eerily just as you drive under them. Unsettling.

19.) Your headlights are not visible to the idiot driving with his high beams on coming the opposite way.

20.) As soon as you turn on your high beams, another car will immediately appear coming toward you and you’ll have to turn them off.

21.) Need to change lanes? Meet “driver who hovers right by your rear bumper.” He’ll never pass you. He’ll never fall behind you. He’ll never see your turn signal. He is legion.

22.) The car in front of you in the EZ-Pass lane still thinks it’s necessary to reduce his speed by at least 10mph.

VIOLET & DAISY – 5/8/14

Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, released in US in 2013

Three things in the opening moments of this film immediately tag it as the most despicable of all movies: a Quentin Tarantino rip-off. But more on that in a moment. The three things were:

1.) Numbered “chapter” screens with quirky names.

2.) A teenage assassin telling a long, quirky story on her way to a hit.

3.) A quirky oldies song playing during a gunfight.

Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse [no, that’s not a typo] Ronan) are a pair of 18-year-old professional killers sent by their boss Russ (Danny Trejo, in what is basically a two-minute cameo) to get rid of a man known only as “the guy” (James Gandolfini, not dead yet). The girls quickly and predictably start to form a bond with their target, which makes the job a lot more time-consuming and dialog-heavy than they initially thought.

The whole thing sounds like a good premise, but, to paraphrase Pink, “it tries too hard, it’s a waste of my time.” This movie wants so bad to be Pulp Fiction, but forgets that Pulp Fiction was made almost 20 years ago and was, itself, made a hundred times 20 years before that.

I have to warn you – I am not a fan of Quentin Tarantino. In real life, the guy is an insufferable poser. Has he made good movies? Absolutely – Jackie Brown is one of my favorites (although it probably helps that it was based on an Elmore Leonard novel and not a QT original). My main gripe about him is that he makes the same movie using the same tired old tricks every single time – the “people talking about everyday stuff while doing something bad,” the “story shot out of sequence,” the “goofy chapter title every ten minutes”… It’s distracting, for me, to watch one of his movies knowing that HE probably watches it, chuckling proudly, saying, “Oh, this is CLASSIC Tarantino right here” every couple minutes. They’re just too self-aware.

That would all be bad enough, but his movies are just smug re-hashes of the schlock exploitation flicks of the 1960s and 70s. That’s fine – everybody likes a little sex, violence and swearing every now and again. But don’t act like it’s art. Don’t laugh at the old-fashioned zooms and sound effects as though it’s some kind of satire. If it was satire, Tarantino would make a different kind of movie eventually. But he can’t.

All this is to say that Violet & Daisy has the distinct feel of a copy of a copy – ripping off a rip-off artist is not something a movie should aspire to. It tries to be too cute for it’s own good – when Daisy is asked how she makes her money, she replies, “Making hits. Vi says it’s better than data entry.” The main characters are 18 but act 6 – they play paddy-cake, have pillow fights and do hop-scotch. There are a bunch of flashbacks, segments where characters tell long stories, and unnecessarily harsh language. There’s also a scene featuring a rotary phone with an answering machine – what time period is this again?

My advice: if you want to see a movie about “the lighter side” of professional killing, check out Grosse Pointe Blank instead.

One of the minor characters is Artie Bucco from The Sopranos.

BORN TO RAISE HELL – 4/30/2014

2010 – 4.5 out of 10 stars on IMDB

Everyone has “their guy,” an actor whose movies you’ll watch no matter how horrendous they might seem. My guy is Steven Seagal.

As an actor, director, writer, and even as a musician, Seagal is completely unique (I’ll direct you to Vern’s excellent book Seagalogy for an explanation of how personal and uncompromising his work is). For years now, my dad and I have been on a mission to watch every one of his films – not only that, but chronicling every F-bomb dropped and every person he kills (he’s up to 659 and 498, respectively, with 41 arm snaps, 11 leg snaps and 16 neck snaps through 33 films).

In Born to Raise Hell, the latest in this glorious undertaking, Seagal (who also wrote the screenplay) is Bobby Samuels, head of a task force looking to rid Bucharest of drugs. His primary opponent appears to be Dmitri (Dan Badarau), a Russian mobster who uses vicious killer/rapist Costel (Darren Shahlavi) as muscle. I’m going to stop naming the actors now, because you’ve never heard of any of them.

Seagal makes a lot of daring choices this time around. For instance, he chooses to kill off the character who announces that his wife is expecting their first child. Didn’t see it coming. He also chooses to give himself a girlfriend at least 40 years his junior, and then makes the even bolder choice to include an uncomfortable sex scene in which she is completely naked but he somehow keeps all of his clothes on.

Sarcasm aside, this movie does have a few genuine surprises – like when Dmitri, who looks like the Big Bad early on, is shown to be an honorable Russian gangster (you know the type) and decides to team up with Seagal. Or when Dmitri’s ruthless blond henchwoman, who we see ruthlessly executing informants earlier on, ends up comforting his young son after Costel attacks his home.  Meanwhile, Seagal’s one assistant, who is always skulking around and smirking and who seemed to obviously be a double agent, turns out to be just a regular guy.

This being a Seagal movie, there are a number of things that are downright bizarre. Dmitri’s criminal associates meet him in a park, where he is shown playing chess. There’s never anyone else around – are we to understand that he plays against himself all day? There is also a sequence were Costel and his gang walk out of their club, and it’s the most painfully protracted “cool” slow-motion walk you’ve ever seen, interspersed with shots of girls dancing and blowing fire.

Seagal provides himself with a number of crowd-pleasing (or at least me-pleasing) beat-up scenes. When he takes his girlfriend to a restaurant, two guys he beat up earlier swagger in and he brutalizes them again. He puts one through a glass display case. Never even breaks a sweat. When Seagal finally confronts Costel, it’s almost like his famous fight against William Forsythe in Out for Justice – he lets the bad guy come at him again and again, effortlessly turning aside his attacks and manhandling him. It’s almost as though Seagal is some kind of karmic avenger, allowing Costel’s own violent, destructive nature be his undoing.

The best and most definitively Seagalian scene is near the end. Dmitri is back in the park at his chess board, and suddenly a hand comes into the shot and moves a piece. Checkmate. Dmitri nods slowly and says, “Only a brilliant strategist could beat me in one move. Those can only be the hands of one man.” Then he looks up and, of course, it’s Seagal. The way the scene is shot, Seagal could have either beaten Dmitri on literally the first move of the game (which is impossible), or he made the finishing move of a game already in progress (in which case didn’t Dmitri technically beat himself?).  Either way, it’s absurd, but it’s so oddly sincere that I nearly applauded.

A fun note on Seagal movies: most of the titles describe him, e.g. Steven Seagal IS Hard to Kill. Steven Seagal IS Marked for Death. Steven Seagal IS A Dangerous Man… and yes, as this movie once again proves… Steven Seagal IS Born to Raise Hell.