Thursday, April 9, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 8

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers): 

Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000)
The Walking Dead: Season 5, Part 2 (AMC, 2015)
Mad Men: "Severance" (AMC/Matthew Weiner, 2015)
Furious 7 (James Wan, 2015)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

5 (or more) Thoughts:

1. This is probably the 10th (or so) time I've seen Inglourious Basterds since it came out 5 1/2 years ago, and it's a movie I'm simply incapable of getting sick of. Not only do I think it's both hilarious and impeccably crafted, but it's a story of an alternate WWII history in which the war was won by Jews and French cinephiles. And I am all of those things. I specifically watched it this time to gather quotes for a Game of Thrones piece I'm writing for tomorrow, but I also paid particular attention to Brad Pitt's performance this time around, as I've been revisiting his work for a career piece I'll write later in the summer. 

Oscar snubs fall into one of two categories--those that we expected to receive nominations, and those that we knew weren't getting nominated anyway. Enough obviousness always develops in the months prior to the Oscar nominations that it's generally understood what's vying for the five slots of any given race. Where these lists of names derive from is usually initial critical and industry reaction to a film. The right people hail the right performances, and then things either galvanize or they don't. One of the all-time movie mysteries for me is how nothing ever galvanized around a "Brad Pitt for Supporting Actor" campaign when Inglourious Basterds came out. The obvious answer is that Cristoph Waltz got all the attention and there wasn't enough left over. But that seems odd, given that the amount of attention Al Pacino got for The Godfather didn't stop James Caan and Robert Duvall from also receiving nominations in the same category. 

I firmly believe that Inglourious Basterds is Pitt's best acting performance, and I don't mean that as a back-handed compliment, as I think Pitt is generally a great actor. I know he had amazing dialogue to work with in his role as Lt. Aldo Raine, but Pitt's ability to turn every single line into a memorable quote goes far beyond just having good material. The backwater Tennessee accent he created, the nuance of delivery, the squint/underbite facial contortion, the confident fuck-all body language… it's as full a performance as you'll ever see.

2. I liked the idea behind Love & Basketball, and appreciated the gist of what it was trying to do. But there were so many logical flaws in the delivery that it took me out of the movie. The one I really couldn't get past was this: The two main characters grow up in a pretty wealthy L.A. neighborhood, and yet, somehow, there isn't a single white student in their high school. The cheer-leading squad is 100% black, and I scoured the stands during every basketball scene and couldn't spot a single caucasian. If they were living in Compton, sure, that's acceptable. But their neighborhood looked more like Beverly Hills. Then a later scene had the female lead, Monica, unexpectedly seeing her old college teammate on her pro team's opponents. The idea that a professional athlete might not know their opponent's roster, and especially might not know they'd be playing against a former teammate, was another logical gaff that I had a hard time getting past. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood had a decent story to tell, but a quality film still requires attention to detail. 

3. The second half of The Walking Dead: Season 5 perfectly encapsulated everything that makes the show so good and so frustrating. The character work and morality plays on the show are arguably the best they've ever been, but the plot manufacturing grows increasingly problematic with each season. I like the general idea of each community the cast enters having a different core flaw. Woodbury was run by a fascist psychopath, Terminus by cannibals, and now Alexandria by people who have grown far too weak by their safety. But in all three cases, the on-screen manifestation of those ideas seem far too extreme for credibility. I know "credibility" is a questionable word for a show about the zombie apocalypse, but the show has always carried itself as "what real life would be like if…", so it's only fair to judge it from that vantage. 

The other problem here, and arguably the bigger one, is that the show just has to try too hard to create conflict. This is mostly the fault of the source material, as writer Robert Kirkman comes from the school of thought that every comic must end on a cliffhanger. But it's difficult for a show to tread the same path without turning into outright soap opera. As always, we'll see. 

4. I don't have too much to say about the Mad Men debut, as it was mostly a table setter (just like the other season debuts have been for the show). I was surprised at how minimally the timeline was hinted at. We had Nixon talking about Vietnam, but that was the only thing that dated the episode at all, and even then, it wasn't very helpful. I'm assuming we're in '69 now, but could be wrong. I've been theorizing for years that the end of the show would coincide with either the moon landing or The Rolling Stones show at Altamont in November of '69, which historians consider the metaphorical death of the '60s. I'm also still holding out for Sally Draper attending Woodstock, which is another theory I've been spouting for years. 

As for what was here, I loved Joan's facial expressions during the disastrous pantyhose meeting, and I loved Kenny Cosgrove's revenge on Roger and Pete, and I loved Peggy being Peggy and Don being very Don. Six more. 

5. Back when Wanted came out in 2008, I referred to it as a "Good Sex Movie," because it reminded me of one of those relationships you tend to have in your early-to-mid-twenties where it's a train wreck in every way except the amazing sex. So you ignore all the signs, like the other person is totally crazy, and you have nothing in common, and you don't really like being in public with them, you avoid talking about them to your friends, and you totally dread them ever meeting your family… but you rationalize away every red flag by saying some variation of "Yeah, but the sex!" With Wanted, the action scenes were the good sex, and it didn't matter that everything else screamed awful. 

Well, Furious 7 is probably the all-time greatest example of a "Good Sex Movie." It doesn't just defy all logic, it actively spits in the face of it. I mean, there's a scene where The Rock, laid up in the hospital with a cast over his broken arm, finds out he's needed, and--and I'm really not making this up--STANDS UP, FLEXES HIS ARM SO HARD HIS CAST BREAKS OFF, AND THEN SAYS "DADDY'S GOTTA GO TO WORK." It was like a skit from SNL, except if SNL was even more ridiculous. 

And yet, who cares? THE SEX IS SO GOOD!!! The stunts in this movie are some of the best I've ever seen, the action set pieces are fantastically conceived, the cars are sexy as hell, the locations are exotic and well-used, Vin Diesel is Vin Diesel, Jason Statham is Jason Statham, and what else do you need? The formula of these movies has settled into a good groove of the Roger Moore-era Bond vibe crossed with a multi-racial/ethnic/gendered cast, great cars, and the best stunts the human mind can imagine. And that's great. It works. It's a hell of a lot of fun. 

5a. Three minor quibbles about Furious 7:

**The amount of cheesecake/female exploitation shots actually went too far, and made me feel like Michael Bay was a creative consultant on the film. There's nothing wrong with making sexy women look sexy, and displaying that sexiness, but it is possible to go too far, and this movie did. We don't need the camera to follow every jiggle of a nice ass (in slow-mo, no less!) to recognize a nice ass. 

**Paul Walker beating Tony Jaa in a fight is like if a movie from 1973 had Burt Reynolds take out Bruce Lee. Wouldn't happen. 

**Given what we know, all of the "no more funerals" talk in the movie felt pretty morbid. I understand that was probably in the original script and they'd likely shot those scenes before Walker died, but I still think they could have been excised, or, at the very least, minimized. 

5b. The Paul Walker eulogy at the film's conclusion was not only nice and tastefully done, but also might be the first of its kind. Plenty of actors have had films released posthumously, but has a posthumous movie ever tacked on an additional scene at the end for the sole purpose of eulogizing them? If it's ever happened before, I haven't seen it. 

In some ways it's strange that such an unserious franchise would be the first film to do something like that, but in a way, that's part of what distinguishes this franchise. To most of the Fast & Furious cast regulars, this is the family business, and there isn't much career to speak of outside of it. How many people can even name the last non-F&F movie made by Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, or Jordana Brewster? These movies were their livelihood, and the added scene gave them a chance to say goodbye to their friend just as much as it did for the audience. It was a nice, genuine gesture. 


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