Friday, December 10, 2010

127 Hours

The year's best movie?

Maybe.

Danny Boyle, the sensational director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire has another superb entry into his filmography.

127 Hours is, of course, based on the story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who got his arm stuck under a boulder in a Utah cavern in 2003.

Ralston was trapped under that rock for five days -- I'm not sure what the total number of hours was -- until he made the desperate decision to cut off his own arm.

By and large, that's the entire plot of the movie.

Guy trapped under a rock. Gets out.

The end.

But ahhhhhh... the character.

Ralston is played by the extremely likable James Franco, who gives Ralston an energetic, gung-ho attitude which contrasts perfectly with his situation. For the rock, you see, doesn't care about Ralston's great attitude. It doesn't care about his likability. The rock is implacable. The rock is the cold, impersonal universe. The rock is death.

And when that character comes into conflict with that rock, wonderful drama results.

The movie proceeds along two tracks: the external problem of the rock, and the internal problem of the character weakness that led Ralston to his predicament.

The character weakness is an old, old, old one.

The Greeks called it hubris.

One reason Ralston spends 127 hours in a ravine is because a rock has him pinned there.

Another reason he spends 127 hours there is because no one comes to help him. This is because no one knows where he is.

And that's just how he planned it.

Ever the free spirit, Ralston never lets himself get too dependent on others. Before leaving on his ill-fated hiking trip, he avoids phone calls from his mother and sister. He leaves no one a note. He practically goes out of his way to keep his weekend hiking location a secret.

He does this because, on a psychological level, he needs to feel in command of his own destiny. His outdoorsy self-reliance gives him this.

Until it comes crashing down on him about twenty minutes into the movie.

It doesn't let up until he makes his gruesome, desperate decision twenty minutes from the end.

This decision may be the reason the movie isn't doing much box office business. Despite the pedigree of Boyle and Franco, it seems most of America just doesn't want to see a young man cut his own arm off.

That's really too bad, because there's nothing senselessly grisly or macabre about Ralston's act. In the context of the film it's an incredibly life-affirming action, and Ralston's words, spoken to the boulder after extricating himself from its death grip, are among the most moving I've heard in years.

127 Hours is an exuberant journey with a wonderful sense of momentum, despite its static situation, and a deep sense of hope and love, despite its grim scenario.

The movie is, in a word, awesome.

Is it the year's best?

Aw, heck yes.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 91/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 92/100

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Black Swan

Director Darren Aronofsky's been known to take chances.

His first movie, Pi, culminated with its mathematician protagonist, a man driven insane by number theory, boring a hole in his own skull with a power drill.

And I loved it.

His subsequent films -- Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler -- have been up and down affairs, as one would expect of someone who takes on a lot of creative risk.

Sadly, Black Swan is big career down, in my opinion.

At least in creative terms.

The story follows Natalie Portman's ballet dancer as she quests for the starring role in a big New York theater company's presentation of "Swan Lake."

Portman's character is disciplined and ambitious to the point of obsession.

Her rival is the more laid-back and fancy-free Mila Kunis.

They compete for the role of Swan Queen, and while Portman nabs it, she feels Kunis' hot breath on her neck throughout.

Thus, Portman's stress level -- always quite high -- goes to stratospheric levels. It goes so high, in fact, she begins to hallucinate. Soon she appears to be making an actual physical transformation into a black swan.

Oh, and monsters appear to chase her around from time to time.

But none of it's real, or so we're led to believe.

Therefore, we have something unusual on our hands: an art house horror flick.

It's certainly... different.

But alas, it just doesn't work.

Portman's character, so humorless and brittle, is hard to sympathize with, and the gruesomeness of her physical torments and hallucinatory transformations make the minute-to-minute experience of watching the movie mostly unpleasant.

There's a ton of startling "boo!" moments, but no real tension, since we know none of the predators stalking Portman are real.

Also, there's lot of ballet dancing.

It's just a weird, cold, distancing mixture that offers neither insight nor pleasure. I get that Portman's character is too much of a perfectionist for her own good, but I got that in the first five minutes, and no other layers to her character are ever revealed.

The movie holds so little sway over our emotions that it is instantly forgettable, which is surprising given that it's so different from every other movie playing this year.

In the end, I guess it's all about heart.

However, as weak as Black Swan is, it looks, walks and quacks like a Serious Oscar Contender.

And in Hollywood -- and elsewhere -- there is often less than a quantum of difference between perception and reality.

Aronofsky and Portman have been hitting the intellectual talk show circuit hard lately. They know it's a weak year for Oscar nominees, and they know they have just the kind of weird, inscrutable movie that might attract votes.

This is a big career moment for both of them, but artistically it's just another bust.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 36/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 38/100

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Red

Graphic novels are a blessing to Hollywood.

They allow that critical “dry run” for a movie. They aren’t just animated screenplays, they are WELL animated screenplays, and they let executives take a gander at a movie before it’s actually made.

Previous graphic novels that have made happy transitions to the movie theater include Sin City, 300, – okay, I’m cheating, both of those are from writer Frank Miller – The Watchmen and A History of Violence.

Those are just the first four that jump to mind.

Graphic novels have become so popular in Hollywood that if it’s not based on an old-fashioned non-graphic novel, the movie you’re watching is probably based on its graphic cousin.

Apparently, comic-book writer Warren Ellis’ graphic novel Red looked good enough for a go-ahead, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a comfortable, familiar tale, told with characters we quickly learn to like.

It helps that we already like the actors playing those characters.

Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent. His status is RED – which means “retired, extremely dangerous.”

Hey, at least it’s catchy.

One night a “wet” team (the liquid generated by a wet team NOT being water) shows up at Frank’s suburban household door looking to kill him.

Frank escapes because he’s Frank. He quickly gathers a bunch of old friends – also of RED status – and starts investigating why the CIA wants some of its best ex-agents dead.

Frank’s friends include Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Brian Cox.

Also along for the ride is regular-girl Mary-Louise Parker, playing Frank’s love interest who gets dragged into a situation above her skill level.

The face of the CIA is a cold, calculating agent played by Karl Urban, Star Trek's Doctor McCoy, and he’s excellent as the new breed of super-agent trying to take down the old breed at the same time as he tries to figure out what’s going on.

Red gives us everything we want in a movie. It gives us banter, it gives us car chases, it gives us gun fights, it gives us larger than life characters, and it keeps a playful tone throughout.

Realistic? Heck no, there’s a million plot holes, and more to the point, a million scenes we’ve seen in movies before. E.g., the CIA agent on the run who must break into CIA headquarters itself!

But Red doesn’t care to break new ground. It cares to let you spend time with Willis and Malkovich and Mirren and enjoy yourself.

The movie doesn’t leave much of an impression on the mind, but it’s two hours pleasantly spent with friends.

That's what it advertises, and it's probably what producer Summit Pictures saw in Warren Ellis' work.

Graphic novels don't make movies surefire successes, but they make a completely uncertain prospect slightly less completely uncertain.

And that's worth its weight in gold.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 80/100

Monday, November 29, 2010

Unstoppable

Momentum can be a powerful force, both in movies and in physics.

Take a train, for example, hurtling down a track at full speed, without a conductor, and loaded with enough toxic chemicals to poison any or all of the innocent Pennsylvania towns in its path.

Now give it a nasty name like "Triple Seven," paint it siren red, and you've got a lot of bad-ass momentum on your hands!

You've got so much momentum, in fact, that the train turns downright evil, targeting schoolchildren and roaring like a bear when it sees something it doesn't like.

Not to fear, however. Momentum works both ways.

If Denzel Washington and Star Trek's Chris Pine, playing engineer and conductor on another train, could, I don't know, "run that bitch down," they could apply full power in the opposite direction, stealing momentum from Triple Seven and bringing it to a gradual halt.

But they have to accomplish this before 777 -- interesting they didn't go with 666, I bet they thought about it -- hits the steep "S" curve in highly-populated Stanton, because when that happens, the evil train will fly right off its tracks, into the terribly dangerous fuel tanks stored thirty feet away, and untold amounts of havoc will be wrought.

That's right, Unstoppable is an utterly ridiculous farce.

It's also a good deal of fun, partly because of the camp factor -- which I would have liked more of; where's Martin Sheen as the mayor of Stanton? -- but partly because there's an undeniable build-up of tension any time you have a freight train getting closer... closer... BLARE of a horn... closer!... and...

ROAR!

There's a reason one of the first motion pictures ever made was a reel that showed a train steaming relentlessly toward the camera.

It was a great gimmick then, and it's still pretty good for generating suspense.

Unstoppable, then, is the rare movie which has good parts that are mildly enjoyable, and bad parts that are also mildly enjoyable.

I was never bored during Unstoppable. Director Tony Scott and salt mine screenwriting slave Mark Bomback got Triple Seven going early, they kept it going, and I had no choice but to stay in my seat until it reached the dreaded Stanton "S" curve.

I was carried along by the movie's momentum.

Side note:

The railroad employee who causes all the trouble by getting out of Triple Seven to throw a switch, but lets the train get away from him before he can get back on?

It's not his first experience with trains.

We saw him in Groundhog Day, where he was a passenger in Bill Murray's car when Murray decided "I'm not going to follow their rules anymore. Eat your vegetables. Be nice to your sister. Oh! And don't drive on the train tracks."

Maybe it's not just the same actor; maybe it's the same character. Both movies take place in Philadelphia. He could have worked for the railroad during Groundhog Day, and we just didn't know it.

It's possible.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 57/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 67/100

GROUNDHOG DAY

How Accomplished: 99/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 100/100

Morning Glory

Some movies aim right down the middle.

Their themes are safe and predictable, like "we must balance work and home life to be happy."

Their plots are simple and sweet, like "an unquenchably optimistic young morning show producer tries to turn around the ratings at a stodgy network program headed by cantankerous anchors."

Their stars are big, like Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams.

The music is intrusive, the set design overly bright, and the shot list is chock full of closeups.

There's a place in the world for these happy, harmless, formulaic piffles of movies.

And that place is filled by Morning Glory.

Originally conceived by screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, and greenlighted (essentially) by J.J. Abrams, who heard the pitch over breakfast one day and said, great, I'd like a producer credit, "Morning Glory" is a movie that could have been written by a sophisticated screenwriting computer program. Though not Final Draft; it's too buggy.

Every trope of the plucky-newcomer-struggles-to-make-it-in-the-big-city subgenre is put into play, including the relationship subplot with the handsome guy who works in "real news."

But all these tropes are underserved because what the movie really cares about is the relationship between Rachel McAdams and her grumpy, Pulitzer-Prize winning anchor, Harrison Ford, who doesn't like to read stories about kittens and never, ever would lower himself to do that morning show staple, the kitchen segment.

I can't really fault the movie for focussing so tightly on this relationship. I've said it myself enough times: affectionate but non-sexual relationships between a man and a woman always work magic on screen.

Especially when the man and the woman are complete opposites, say if he's old, self-absorbed and cynical whereas she is young, idealistic and self-sacrificing.

Ford mostly sleepwalks through his performance, and the director let McAdams get too cartoonish with hers, but it's still a decent relationship, and it's almost enough to save Morning Glory.

But I just didn't laugh enough for it to work as a comedy, and I didn't care enough for it to work as a drama.

Morning Glory is not a bad film, it's just an easy, obvious film, and there will always be a demand for such films.

Hollywood should keeping making them. It's what Hollywood does.

They should just do it a tiny bit better.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 46/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 43/100

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fair Game

Politics.

So tricky.

Fundamentally, how one feels about Fair Game will reflect how one feels about the news story on which it's based.

Said story concerns Valerie Plame, a CIA agent whose husband, Joe Wilson, wrote an editorial in the New York Times in 2003. The editorial claimed the Bush Administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq -- namely, that an African country called Niger sold vast quantities of yellow-cake uranium to Saddam Hussein -- was bogus.

Piqued by this, the Bush Administration -- embodied by vice-presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby -- leaked Valerie Plame's name to the press, identifying her as a CIA agent.

This was an unkind thing to do, because you can't be involved in covert operations if everyone knows you're involved in covert operations.

Therefore, Plame's career at the CIA was over.

Wilson retaliated on behalf of his wife by going on a bunch of talk shows and bashing the administration.

The administration and its allies responded by bashing Wilson and Plame on the same talk shows.

What does it all add up to?

Ummm...

I don't know.

Oh, I understand what the perspective of the movie is. The movie opines that a terrible injustice was committed by the U.S. government, and until it is called to account, all our freedoms are in jeopardy.

I understand it. I just don't feel it.

Like the recent Facebook movie, the level of craft here is fairly strong. Sean Penn and Naomi Watts are typically good, Doug Liman of the immortal Swingers and the more recent The Bourne Identity does a good job behind the camera, and screenwriter Jez Butterworth is at least competent, having written the fun Roman-soldiers-running-around-Britain movie The Last Legion for young audiences in 2007.

But like I said, politics are tricky.

And the passion that drove the creation of this film, while undeniably genuine, is not something that taps into anything primal or universal. It taps into something political.

So if you voted Democrat in the recent elections, I imagine you'll really like Fair Game.

If you voted Republican, you'll probably hate it.

If you didn't vote at all, like my humble and deeply apologetic self, you'll likely be nonplussed.

Fair Game is smart and authentic, but it's not exactly JFK or All The President's Men, because the stakes are so low.

No one dies, no one almost dies, and the principles at stake are buried a little deeper in the US Constitution than behooves most Hollywood films.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 56/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 54/100

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

I like a good scary movie.

And Paranormal Activity 2 is a good scary movie.

It pulls off the odd feat of mimicking its predecessor in almost every way without feeling redundant.

Like its parent movie, PA2 is about a young couple in a suburban home terrorized by an invisible demon.

It uses actors we've never seen before and "found footage" comprised of home video and security camera shots to a) keep costs down and b) make the events of the movie feel more real.

This seizes on an important insight. If the subject of your movie is inherently implausible -- for example, if it involves a mean-spirited ghost -- then making that subject seem real is all that matters for the movie to be successful. If we buy into that ghost, you win, Paranormal Activity 2.

It helps that we never see the ghost. We only see its effects.

These effects start reeeeeally small. In the early scenes, the evil demon limits itself to lifting the mechanized pool cleaner out of the pool each night.

That's not too bad, is it?

But then it starts making thumping noises inside the house. That's a bit creepy.

Then it starts opening doors.

And our skin starts to crawl.

The sequel retains a couple elements from the original -- a female lead who correctly intuits the supernatural, and a boneheaded male lead whose so-called rationality dooms everyone -- while adding three new ones.

One of the additions is a family dog, who participates in the story enough that I hope it gets residuals. Another is a sixteen year-old daughter named Ali, and the third is a baby boy named Hunter.

The presence of the kids jacks up the stakes. We're ready for adults to be terrorized and killed by a demon. We're not so ready to see it happen to kids.

The movie walks the line just right, threatening to kill those kids without actually doing it.

The Paranormal Activity franchise has discovered a simple, effective formula. They make what is essentially a home video gone terribly wrong in predictable, escalating and unstoppable ways.

There's some neat narrative work also. The wife/mom of the household is a sister to the first movie's Katie Featherston, who pops in for a few visits.

The audience assumes Featherston is demon-possessed -- which is where the last movie left her -- and that gives heft to scenes in which she's holding baby Hunter.

Soon we understand that PA2 takes place BEFORE the events of PA1, and in creepy ways it actually gives rise to those events.

It's a surprise prequel.

PA2 didn't freak me out for days, the way The Ring or The Grudge did a few years ago, but it did scare me while I was in the movie theater, and that alone--

------BOO!---------

See?

It's hard to scare people, even for a second.

Got to give a good scary movie its due.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 78/100

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Social Network

You know who's a great Hollywood screenwriter?

Aaron Sorkin.

He wrote A Few Good Men and created the show The West Wing.

You know who's a great director?

David Fincher. He shot Se7en and Fight Club.

You know what's a great story? The story of the creation of Facebook, that ubiquitous web site that everyone on the planet under fifty uses.

It's a great story because there's a lot of dispute about who actually created Facebook. The dispute is understandably contentious, since Facebook is considered to be worth something like ten billion dollars.

So The Social Network, written by Sorkin, directed by Fincher, about Facebook, just HAS to be good.

Right?

Am I right?

Maybe we should get back to that "great" story.

In broad strokes, Facebook was invented by a nerdy freshman at Harvard named Mark Zuckerberg, who may or may not have stolen the idea from a couple snooty upperclassmen before developing it with a small group of friends in his dorm.

As the website took off, Zuckerberg cut all contact with the snooty upperclassmen, met and got charmed by glitzy showman and Napster founder Sean Parker, and got persuaded to freeze out his closest friend and co-founder.

Pretty soon Zuckerberg, though enormously rich, found himself all alone in the world, left only with his svengali Sean Parker, a ton of lawsuits, and of course, with Facebook.

The screenplay is focused, witty and fast-paced. The directing is swift and sure. The acting is uniformly excellent -- including Justin Timberlake, who's completely unselfconscious as Sean Parker.

With all these elements in place, The Social Network must be an instant classic.

Except it isn't.

The reason is hard to pinpoint. It's true Zuckerberg isn't terribly sympathetic, but movies have done better with less sympathetic protagonists than him.

It's true the movie plays fast and loose with the facts, but so did Citizen Kane.

So why doesn't TSN grip the imagination?

Maybe it's the caveman theory.

The caveman theory says the only good movies are movies that would be equally effective shown to an audience of prehistoric cave-dwellers.

The thinking being: unlike a book, a movie is a visceral experience, a sensory experience, and its characters need simple, primal motivations for the movie to succeed, because a movie engages us on a simpler level of the brain than a book does.

If this is true, it might explain why a civil court deposition between claimants who want credit and profits deriving from a popular social networking web site yet to be effectively monetized... might be emotionally underwhelming.

Which is a shame, because it really is a great story.

It's just not a great movie.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 64/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 62/100

Friday, October 8, 2010

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

You can't go home again.

Or can you?

It's a question Hollywood has been determined to solve, in the affirmative, for almost a decade now.

The movie-going audience is long-accustomed to sequels and threequels and fourquels, remakes and reimaginings, adaptations and even the newfound "reboot."

But we're hitting fresher ground still with Wall Street 2, a sequel of a movie that seems almost impossible to sequelize. And why would you want to? The original Wall Street wasn't an action/adventure franchise, it was a trenchant slice of mid-80's cynicism; a critique of consumer culture in the midst of said culture's glory days. It was a welcome antidote to money mania.

The new movie's PR flacks contend that the collapse of the economic bubble started in the 80's makes this a perfect time to revisit the characters who embodied the bubble's creation, but if there's one thing we DON'T need in 2010, it's another cynical take on corporate greed.

We've got plenty of that, thank you very much.

But because corporate greed never goes away, we've got a sequel anyway. In this version, Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox is replaced by goody two-shoes stock trader Shia Lebeouf.

Strangely, Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko is replaced -- at least in story terms -- by Josh Brolin's titan of the banking industry.

NOTE: One way to tell a sequel is inferior to the original is to see how the names of the characters become less suggestive. Where once we had Gordon Gekko mentoring Bud Fox, now we have Bretton James mentoring Jake Moore. Downgrade!

In Money Never Sleeps, Michael Douglas' role is reduced to trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Carey Mulligan. The fact that she is engaged to marry Shia Lebeouf is what brings Douglas into our main plot.

That main plot deals with Lebeouf's attempt to get revenge on Josh Brolin for ruining the financial fortunes of Lebeouf's father figure, Frank Langella, who was the chairman of a Lehman Brothers-type banking house driven under in the collapse of 2008.

If you think this is getting complicated, you are right, and it doesn't stop there. Lebeouf is looking to gather money for a company trying to invent a cold fusion process, Carey Mulligan is pregnant, and Lebeouf's mom, Susan Sarandon, is a real estate agent who keeps borrowing money from her son because her properties are declining in value.

Money Never Sleeps tries to capture every aspect of the financial collapse, and it tries to do so by layering subplot upon subplot, character upon character.

This strays from the blueprint of the original, which captured the spirit of the 80's boom through a narrow plot with few characters -- nice guy Bud Fox gets mentored, and corrupted, by charming but diabolical Gordon Gekko.

All is not lost, however. To flesh out the screenplay, director Oliver Stone employed writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, who do an excellent job with indvidual scenes. The problem in Money Never Sleeps exists at the story level, not the script level.

Also shoring up the weakness of the story is some fine work from the brilliant cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the visual maestro behind the movies Lust, Caution, Brokeback Mountain and 8 Mile.

Money Never Sleeps is entertaining, well-crafted and worth seeing.

But it's not iconic and it's not a contribution to our culture, the way the first one was.

Hollywood has proven you can go home again.

But, as any real estate agent will tell you, home values aren't what they once were.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 67/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 66/100

SCORE FOR WALL STREET (1987)

How Accomplished: 94/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 96/100

Monday, October 4, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger

At a screening in Toronto for his latest movie, Woody Allen -- who churns out a movie a year, and has done so for the past four decades -- was asked if his movies might benefit from, uh... more time spent in front of the keyboard.

Allen replied:

"They wouldn't be better. I have thought about that, yes, but they wouldn't be. When I've had time to do something, it doesn't come out better. There's no correlation between the time spent and how it comes out. It's really about the luck of a good idea. If you get a good idea you can execute it quickly."

So how good is the idea behind You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger?

Mediocre, alas.

The story follows a family composed of members with varying levels of self-delusion.

The most deluded is aging mother Gemma Jones, who has just been dumped by long-time husband Anthony Hopkins. He has taken up with blonde bubblehead and up-until-five-minutes-ago call girl Lucy Punch, a turn of events which sends Gemma to a sham of a psychic named, of course, Cristal, for guidance.

Their daughter Naomi Watts is married to Josh Brolin, a layabout who foolishly quests to write the Great American Novel. While waiting impatiently for this to happen, Watts has fallen in love with her married boss, Antonio Banderas, whom she hopes will some day leave his wife...

And so the plot tangles and tangles and tangles.

The central theme -- that we all depend on self-delusion to an alarming degree, and that the most deluded among us are often the happiest -- is really cool. And it shows why Woody Allen is such a brave artist. Allen himself has few delusions, but he can't bring himself to scorn those who do. Not overly much, anyway. The truth is, delusions are effective.

The problem with the story isn't thematic, and it has nothing to do with craft. Allen has more craft at screenwriting than anyone alive.

The problem is in the emotional underpinning of the story.

No one in Tall, Dark Stranger seems to like anyone else very much. The marriages are a wreck -- that goes with Woody Allen territory -- but even the familial relationships lack warmth.

Ultimately, there is no love in this movie, which makes it hard to hook into the characters. The unwavering affection between the brothers Colin Farrell and Ewan MacGregor made Cassandra's Dream work, as did the stormy, primal passion between Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

In movies, it's okay to be unhappy, it's okay to be ignoble and it's even okay to commit murder. But you have to love someone, somehow. We demand it.

Since there was no love within Tall, Dark Stranger, I have no love for it.

But it's only another twelve months till the next Woody Allen film rolls into theaters.

Maybe he'll have better luck with that one.

We'll see!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Easy A

Lots of things have to come together for a movie to work.

In Easy A, lots of things come together.

Young screenwriter Bert Royal -- you wouldn't think he'd be so young, age 33, with a name like Bert -- gets things going with his witty screenplay about a high school virgin who develops a reputation as a slut by pretending to sleep with a series of unpopular boys to boost their reputations.

"Pretending" is the key word here, a clever conceit which makes the virgin's character extremely likable because a) her motive is compassion, and b) the outcome of said compassion makes her a victim of undeserved punishment, two qualities that glue audiences to a character in a hurry. Throw in a sense of humor and we're in love.

Director Will Gluck, of last year's fizzy FU, adds his restless camera technique and affinity for speedy dialogue.

Then there's Emma Stone, the rising star of Zombieland, whose sarcastic smirk and comfort with big words (and lots of 'em) makes her ideal to play Olive, the virgin at the heart of Easy A.

There's something very modern about the movie, not only in the freshness of its fast-thumping, music-heavy approach but in the subject matter itself.

A slutty reputation would doom a heroine in any past era -- as it did in Easy A's literary forebear The Scarlet Letter -- but in our culture a scandalous reputation is not the end of dignity, it's merely a speed bump on the road to public recovery.

Also reflecting the cultural moment, Olive's scandal creates a split between social progressives and religious conservatives. The progressives are represented by gal pal Aly Michalka, currently starring in the new WB series Hellcats, while the conservatives are represented by Amanda Bynes, who plays the spiritual leader of the school's devout Christians.

There's a lot of good chuckles in the movie, a sparkling main character, a few thoughtful lessons on the nature of private and public morality, and a meandering dull spot where it always is, at the two-thirds mark.

This is not the deepest, most serious-minded film ever made, but it's eminently well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable.

Easy B.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 75/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100

Friday, October 1, 2010

Devil

I have this friend.

His name is Evan.

He called me about a year and a half ago with an idea for a script. In it, six strangers are trapped on an elevator by a sinister villain whose voice is the only one to come out of the emergency call box. Every fifteen minutes, the lights go out. When they come back on, another passenger in the elevator is dead.

One of the trapped riders is a murderous ally of the voice in the call box. But which one?

I told my friend it sounded great and he should get to work on it right away. He did, and the result was an excellent, tightly-written thriller called Elevator.

He got an agent excited by the project. A production company even started lining up financiers.

Then came word that M. Night Shyamalan, writer/director of the early hit The Sixth Sense and a string of recent bombs, had a very similar idea.

Shyamalan's project would be called Devil, and it too would involve average people trapped on an elevator. Every fifteen minutes the lights would go out and another passenger would be dead. Shyamalan's project -- which he conceived but did not write or direct -- had one additional element. Instead of being terrorized by an antagonist looking for Swiss bank account numbers, the opponent in Devil would be, well, the Devil.

Shyamalan always did love the supernatural.

My friend's project fell apart -- at least at the time -- and it was back to the drawing board. This is a somewhat common experience for aspiring screenwriters, but it's an awfully demoralizing one.

So this past weekend was especially tough for him, as he had to endure advertisements, reports and reviews of Shyamalan's exciting new thriller about -- are you ready for this? -- people trapped on an elevator!

He even had well-meaning but naive friends calling to congratulate him on his success in getting his story to the big screen.

Ouch.

Which leaves us with Devil. How is it?

For my friend's sake, I'd like to say it's an unmitigated disaster, but the key breakthrough seems to have been not letting M. Night Shyamalan write or direct his own movie.

Instead, Brian Nelson, who wrote the terrific Ellen Page thriller Hard Candy in 2005, takes scripting duties, and John Erick Dowdle, who directed 2008's fast and fun vampire thriller Quarantine, mans the camera.

No-name actors give life to the characters in Devil: the passengers trapped in the elevator, the building mechanics trying to get the elevator doors open and the police detective trying to figure out what's going on.

It's the police detective who takes center stage. He's the one who begins to understand the supernatural aspect of the situation, courtesy of a whispery latino building mechanic whose grandmother told stories of el diablo testing human morality.

It's also our police detective who arcs over the course of the story, for he too is being tested.

Much as I hate to admit it, Devil, while low-rent and cheesy, is also simple, efficient and even a little moving. I may not have cared much for the people stuck in the elevator -- all of whom personified various levels of guilt, but I did feel for our police detective, who carried a tragic past and had a big surprise in store for him.

Yep, there's a twist in this M. Night Shyamalan-inspired movie. Hard to believe!

But it's the kind of twist that makes a story better, not worse. It's the kind of twist that helps us understand character. It's not a show-offy trick.

Okay, I have to spoil the twist. I can't help myself. Here goes:

One of the inhabitants of the elevator is connected -- in a very culpable way -- to the personal tragedy in the police detective's past. So once the police detective gets that person out of the elevator, you can imagine the temptations that bedevil him. So to speak.

Like an episode of the old Twilight Zone TV show, Devil is a little spooky, a little mind-bending and, in the end, a little touching and hopeful.

Defying expectations, Devil isn't bad at all. It's even kind of good.

But Evan's script was better.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 58/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 61/100

How Bad I Feel for My Friend Evan: 92/100

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Town

This is Ben Affleck's second outing as a director, and he's making it very clear what kind of director he wants to be.

The boring kind.

Affleck won an Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting, but writing original material is difficult and chancy, so Affleck has settled into a career path with a well-established pedigree.

The path is: 1) go with a stodgy, old-fashioned genre -- in this case the crime story -- 2) grab the rights to a somber, serious novel spiced with just a couple car chases and gun fights, 3) don't deviate from said novel at all -- just film the damn thing -- 4) delve into cliche just deeply enough to set back the art form eighteen months or so, and through it all 5) give no one -- and I mean no one! -- the slightest reason to even think about mocking you.

In other words: play it safe.

Well, I'm not going to mock Ben Affleck. So... mission accomplished.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 57/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 54/100

Okay.

The Town refers to blue-collar, post-industrial Charleston, Massachusetts, supposedly home to the most bank robberies of any city in the country.

Perpetrating some of these robberies is our four man crew: Boston-native Ben Affleck himself, The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner -- who is sensational -- and two no-name chums distinguished by being fat and skinny and having hardly any lines of dialogue.

Renner's sister and Affleck's one-time love interest is played by gorgeous teen siren and Gossip Girl Blake Lively.

The crew's FBI pursuer is played by gorgeous male siren and Mad Man Jon Hamm.

Its nefarious criminal connection is played by the old Merchant and Ivory vet, Pete Postelthwaite.

Affleck's imprisoned father is played by Oscar winner Chris Cooper.

As you may have noticed, I haven't gotten to the movie's plot yet.

The plot involves recent indie darling Rebecca Hall, a bank employee who happens to spend time with the crew because they use her as a temporary hostage. No problem, though, they're wearing masks, so she won't be able to identify them.

Until...

Jeremy Renner discovers, by looking at the driver's license he lifted off her, that Ms. Hall lives a mere four blocks from her temporary captors.

So worried is he that Rebecca Hall will somehow identify them, he suggests they kill her.

Instead, through a complicated series of events, Affleck falls in love with her.

This strains credulity, but it's not the worst story in the world. A bank robber falls in love with the one person who can point him out to law enforcement. There's some nice irony there.

No, the problem is, this relationship, and this story, have a hard time making headway in the face of all those characters I listed.

Endless time is spent following Affleck as he bounces between Renner, Cooper, Lively, Postelthwaite and Hamm. I'm surprised he found time to date Hall, let alone fall in love with her.

This surfeit of characters can work great in novels, but if you're going to make a two-hour movie you have to reduce the characters and subplots to a number the audience can handle.

And that means messing with it! Which entails accepting a level of personal responsibility and artistic risk Affleck is apparently unwilling to take. Instead he just filmed the damn thing.

Safe. Boring.

He protected himself further by filling every inessential role with attention-grabbing, name actors. That cushions him from criticism -- the movie will certainly FEEL surefire -- but it also makes off-spine scenes extremely hard to cut in the editing room.

Cooper shouldn't be in the movie, but how do you cut him out? Heck, Hamm probably shouldn't be in this movie. But he's in the trailer. You're using him to sell the thing. How can you cut him out?

Sadly, Affleck has put the safety of his own reputation first, the crackling heart of his movie second.

And it reminds me of another actor-turned-director, Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood's movies are characterized by nice camera-work, solid production values and overall competence.

But they're rarely better than okay, because Eastwood never, but never, takes risks.

Curiously, when fellow actor Mel Gibson gets behind the camera he makes vastly more interesting films. They are less refined, less polished, and a hundred million times less tasteful, but there's a crazy hotblooded artist behind Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.

And you can't say that about a single movie Eastwood has ever made.

The difference between Eastwood and Gibson, clearly, is that Gibson doesn't give a damn what the respectable people of the world think -- something the tabloids have made ABUNDANTLY clear -- while Eastwood does.

Ben Affleck gives a damn too.

I find Affleck a tremendously smart and likable person in interviews. I like Eastwood too.

Therefore, let's blame their artistic mediocrity on the respectable people of the world these directors are trying so hard to please.

Screw you, respectable people.

You're getting in the way of good movies.

YOUR SCORE: 14/100

Friday, September 17, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Let's talk about what science fiction is, and what it isn't.

It is:

-Spaceships
-Robots
-Aliens
-Laser guns
-The future

It isn't:

-Stuffy English boarding schools
-Day trips to London
-Long walks on grassy meadows
-The loss of innocence
-1994

Therefore, Never Let Me Go, the pretentious, paper-thin movie about children raised to be organ donors, is categorically not science fiction.

In any conceivable way.

I would argue it doesn't belong to any genre at all. I would argue it's not even a story.

What is it then? That's a hard question to answer, but I know these three people are on screen a lot.

That's Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. They play youngsters raised in an alternate universe identical to ours in all ways but one: in alternate 1954, a scientific miracle was achieved that enabled the average human lifespan to exceed 100 by the 1970's.

The nature of this breakthrough is never discussed, but I'm guessing it's the breakthrough of cloning. Because our three youngsters, and all their classmates, are clones.

(How this breakthrough enhanced the lifespan so drastically remains a mystery to me, since organ failure isn't nearly the hazard to human longevity that cancer and heart disease are -- but like everything in this movie, such basic facts go entirely unconsidered.)

Our three organ-bank clones are reared at Hailsham, a stereotypical English boarding school presided over by stereotypically prim and proper old spinsters.

They are raised in ignorance of their purpose in life until, one day, a conscience-stricken schoolteacher -- who seems inexplicably surprised that her students are kept in the dark about their fates -- reveals the entire diabolical secret to her class!!!

This revelation has precisely zero impact on the plot.

The reason for this is because there is no plot.

Our characters don't actually DO anything in this movie.

When they learn they will surely die by thirty after several excruciating organ donations, they respond by... feeling bad about this.

And that's pretty much it.

As young adults, they have free reign to go where they will, but never once do they think to change their names, drop off the grid and try to avoid getting found by the authorities.

Instead they meekly submit to their roles.

The only struggle they put up is to apply for a "deferral" granted to clones who fall in love with each other. Don't ask me to explain the previous sentence, I don't understand it myself. But they are crushed to learn there is no such thing as a true love deferral -- something I could have told them twenty minutes into the movie -- so whoosh! It's off to the Operating Room to surrender your organs.

This encapsulated plot synopsis disguises the amount of raw boredom exerted by Never Let Me Go.

There's a subplot involving the love triangle between Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield that is so extended it threatens to overtake the main plot. And maybe it is the main plot, but I'm sticking to my guns, saying there is no plot at all.

Children raised to be organ donors, who discover this fact, then go on to actually become organ donors is not a plot!

And it's not science fiction, I don't care what anyone says.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 17/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 14/100

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Something weird is happening in Hollywood.

Movies based on video games are starting to get -- I don't want to go crazy here -- they're starting to get good.

The month of May brought us the surprisingly fun Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and the month of September gives us Resident Evil: Afterlife, the fourth installment in the Paul W.S. Anderson written/directed quadrilogy which eternally stars the gorgeous and athletic Milla Jovovich and a bevy of mindless zombies that need shooting in the worst possible way.

Cue: shooting. Cue: rain. Cue: explosions.

But also cue spare, effective dialogue, excellent pacing and tremendously elaborate action sequences.

This movie, even more than its predecessors, owes an enormous debt stylistically to The Matrix. There's lots of "bullet-time" slo-mo effects, lots of trenchcoats and sunglasses worn through raging thunderstorms. There's even a central bad guy who may well be Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith literally spliced into this movie's footage.

Somehow the lack of originality doesn't seem important.

Our characters -- that's Ali Larter with Milla in the photo; she and Milla meet up with four or five other human survivors in the course of events, as per the series formula -- are trapped in a Los Angeles prison surrounded by zombies. They are trying to reach safety on a cargo ship floating just off the coast, but they must get past several thousand zombies to do so.

It's a simple and effective situation, reminiscent of... I almost want to say, a video game.

And that's what's so weird. It's not like the Resident Evil movies -- or Prince of Persia for that matter -- have taken their inspiration from their video game origins and then gone a completely different direction.

No, these movies actively strive to feel like video games. They're not ashamed of it. They revel in it.

And they do it really, really well.

What helps is the fact that video games themselves have gotten better, and more like movies. In all the big releases these days, cinematic interludes of often astonishing quality seek to knit together action sequences into a coherent narrative.

Thus, the barrier between game and movie has gotten weaker, except that movies have a new edge: it's called 3-D.

The 3-D effects in Resident Evil: Afterlife are superb. Truly immersing. So much so, I'm starting to think 3-D is going to stick around. When a movie is filmed in 3-D, not just converted in post, it really does add to the experience.

That's a big admission for a curmudgeon like myself. I was underwhelmed by the 3-D environment of the pioneering Avatar, partly because I thought the entirely cgi'd effects looked unreal. A movie like Res Evil 4, however, with its subdued color palette and focus on the martial arts mastery of its performers -- something that can't be faked -- makes great use of eye-popping 3-D.

This is a terribly confusing time for Hollywood studios, who are desperately looking for a new business model amid shifting technological, cultural and economic forces.

It's equally confusing for viewers trying to ferret out what kinds of movies to go see. After all, if you can't count on a 3-D, video-game based fourquel to be bad... what can you count on?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 83/100

Monday, September 6, 2010

Machete

Timing is clearly not everything.

If it were, Machete would be a great film.

It's the tale of a Mexican-born folk hero who takes up arms -- a particular arm, in fact -- when an evil conspiracy of US politicians, drug lords and border vigilantes concoct a plan to erect an electrified fence along the Rio Grande.

The fence will putatively eliminate illegal immigration, but its real purpose is to funnel illegals through secret checkpoints, controlled by, and therefore profiting, the evil conspiracy.

Given the recent turmoil over Arizona's tightening restrictions on illegals, which has provoked a national discussion on race, class, and the nature of America itself, Machete's timing could hardly be better.

Add to this the fact that the corrupt US politician is played by Robert De Niro (!), the drug lord by Steven Seagal, and the border vigilante by Don Johnson, and Machete should be the most fun had at the movies all year long. Or at least all summer long.

Sadly, it's not in a position to take advantage of all this because it's just a cheap, cheesy cash grab without the sneaky brilliance that could have made it special.

This is not entirely surprising, given its provenance.

Machete began life as a fake movie trailer between the Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino segments of the double feature throwback movie, Grindhouse.

Said trailer portrayed craggy-faced character actor Danny Trejo meting out desert justice with sweeping cuts of the curved blade from which he derives his nickname.

There were great lines in the trailer. "If you hire Machete to kill the bad guy, you better make damn sure the bad guy isn't you!"

(Well, sort of great lines.)

There are good lines in the movie too. There are good characters and good scenes. And the outlandishness quotient stays quite high throughout, as well it should.

But it doesn't add up to anything. It feels like a series of skits, almost like a Saturday Night Live sketch movie, and the climactic battle between illegal Mexican immigrants and thuggish militia border patrol hicks underwhelms.

And that's despite the fact it features Machete flying through the air in a motorcycle with a rapid-fire minigun strapped to its handlebars.

I wanted to love Machete. Instead I liked it.

It's a fun piece of disposable cinetrash, like so many movies are recently. In Machete's case, though, it's especially unfortunate, because the conditions were in place for a stupid, low-brow, violence- and sex-obsessed...

...classic.

Sigh.

Maybe next time.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 52/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 58/10

Friday, September 3, 2010

The American

You know what's a good word?

Lugubrious.

It means "exaggeratedly or affectedly mournful," according to my favorite internet dictionary, m-w.com.

Unfortunately, if you're applying that word to a film, it means you didn't like that film very much.

And I didn't like The American, the new film by, well, by George Clooney. Though nominally adapted by mediocre screenwriter Rowan Joffe -- whose only notable credit is the 28 Days Later zombie movie sequel 28 Weeks Later -- and directed by less-than-mediocre Dutch commercial and music video director Anton Corbijn -- whose only notable credit is the badly done rock bio Control -- this movie has Clooney's fingerprints all over it.

Don't get me wrong. I like Clooney. He seems truly friendly and thoughtful, and he should teach a seminar on celebrity classiness.

But a star is a star, and if you're big enough long enough, eventually it's impossible not to succumb to a particular temptation: the vanity film.

The vanity film is a subtle form of egotism, not as bad as saying "Don't you know who I am?" to a convenience store employee who charges you full price for a gallon of milk, but a form of egotism nonetheless.

In it, a star who makes his ungodly fortune being handsome and charming shows us his serious side. He shows it so hard, in fact, that you are going to come close to slitting your wrists by the time the movie ends.

Meanwhile, the movie star is going to go home and have sex with a supermodel.

Overall it's a terrible deal for those of us in the audience, but boy does it work out for the star.

In The American, Clooney plays serious. So serious he doesn't crack a smile once.

His serious character is the mysterious Jack, an assassin hiding in Italy from sinister Swedes intent on killing him for reasons intentionally left unexplained.

He keeps in sporadic contact with his boss, who is also sinister. His boss hooks him up with an attractive woman looking for a custom-built rifle from Clooney. She also behaves in a sinister way.

In fact, everyone in the movie strikes a sinister pose, which makes Clooney's Jack pretty twitchy. After awhile he gets so twitchy he begins to suspect...

--spoiler alert--

...the rifle he is building is intended for use on himself, which of course it is.

He continues building it, however. He has self-loathing issues due to his work as an assassin, which partly explains all the staring-out-windows-with-a-vacant-expression he does.

Have I mentioned this is a slow-moving, exaggeratedly or affectedly mournful movie? Well, it is.

On top of all that mournfulness, Clooney's character has precisely zero redeeming qualities. He is a cold-hearted killer who speaks in monosyllabic sentences, trusts no one, and appears worried that someone is waiting to kill him around every corner.

This isn't artistic. It's just dreary.

And in case we didn't know it was amateur hour, the maddening technique of audience inferior position is employed. This means the audience is kept in the dark about certain things that will be sprung on us later.

The downside to this is, you run the risk of audience disengagement from the movie. If that happens, no amount of shocking revelation in act three can salvage the situation.

The better writers in Hollywood utilize superior position, where the audience actually knows more than the characters on screen. This creates tension, meaning, context and empathy. Also it lets us know what the hell is happening.

Lots of writers still go for inferior position though. They like "twists."

They're idiots.

In the case of The American, we're kept in the dark about all kinds of things, the most material being Clooney's super-clever plan to escape being assassinated himself. His trick comes out of the blue, so much so, I didn't understand it even after it was executed. I needed a stranger to explain it to me over the closing credits.

God, I hate inferior position.

Cato the Elder was a Roman senator who ended every speech, no matter the subject, with the line "...also I think Carthage should be destroyed."

I feel as strongly about the perils of audience inferior position as Cato felt about the danger posed by Carthage, so I'm tempted to end every movie review henceforth with a similar refrain.

The American is a clear failure which should have been titled "The Overly Rich, Overly Famous and Overly Praised American Movie Star."

Also, I think audience inferior position should never be used.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 38/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 33/100

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Gotta love a girl with neon highlights in her hair.

Scott Pilgrim does. He's a geeky Canadian twenty-two year old played by Michael Cera, a geeky Canadian twenty-two year old.

The girl with the neon highlights is Ramona Flowers, a bewitchingly cool hipsterette Cera meets at a party in Toronto, where his adventures are set.

Against all odds, geeky Cera ends up charming Ramona into a date. Great for his love life, bad for his life life. Ramona has seven evil exes that must be defeated in battle before Scott can become Ramona's boyfriend.

Obviously, this is not a gritty documentary ripped from today's headlines.

It's based on a graphic novel equally influenced by Japanese anime and video games like Street Fighter.

Director Edgar Wright, a comedic Brit who does most of Simon Pegg's movies, like Shaun of the Dead, does a terrific job nailing the tone of the graphic novel. That tone is breezy and whimsical, with lots of super-fast cuts between scenes, lots of computerized graphics floating across the screen, and lots of action which gleefully defies physical law.

All this is perfectly in keeping with both the video game and anime genres. And it suits the movie version of Scott Pilgrim just great. In a world where every movie has a tendency to feel the same, it's refreshing to see one make a play at being something different.

Scott Pilgrim is different, all right, and by and large it is successfully so.

The Scott vs. The Seven Evil Exes plot is layered with a variety of quirky characters, including Scott's wise-cracking gay roommate, his wise-cracking sister, his wise-cracking bandmates and... okay, well, yes, there's a pattern developing there. But when scenes typically run ten seconds or less, the only way to get a word in edgewise is to make a wisecrack. Naturally, they abound.

And then there are the evil exes themselves, a collection of popular actors that do indeed make Cera's Pilgrim seem like a romantic underdog. Among them are Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and most intimidating of all, Hollywood royalty and one-time quirky underdog himself, Jason Schwarzman.

I won't be spoiling much by saying Scott defeats all seven evil exes, but not before learning some genuinely thoughtful lessons about the relative merits of true love versus a true sense of self-worth.

As cheerfully implausible as the movie's action sequences are, there's something true-to-life about the central metaphor of overcoming a girlfriend's "evil exes." In real life, evil exes may not have to be fought physically, but they must be fought in other ways.

This lends a sprinkling of pathos, which makes the movie resonate more than one might expect.

The only real drawbacks in Scott Pilgrim relate to pacing. The story has an episodic shape due to its premise, and its fast pace, good for the first half, makes the second half drag a bit because the quick-cuts lose their effectiveness with repetition.

So Pilgrim has a dead spot right where most movies do, between the halfway mark and the two-thirds mark.

But then Scott loses Ramona to Schwarzman, and he must gird himself for the final confrontation, and things pick up nicely once again.

Scott Pilgrim got slaughtered at the box office last weekend, and due to its effects it wasn't a cheap movie to make. This is a shame because it is fun, fizzy and smarter than it looks.

There's no sequel coming, so you better enjoy this one.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 78/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 81/100

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Lisbeth Salander is pretty awesome.

She is, of course, the lead character in Stieg Larson's trio of books about a computer hacker and a journalist who tangle with a variety of unsavory characters in Sweden.

In the movie versions -- currently in subtitled Swedish, soon to be remade in English -- Salander is played by Noomi Rapace, who magnificently embodies the hardbitten girl with the dragon tattoo.

In Fire, Lisbeth gets herself in even more trouble than usual.

Her fingerprints turn up on a gun used to murder a nice married couple who work with Salander's partner in crimefighting, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Next thing she knows, Salander is an international fugitive, hiding from the authorities while pursuing the identity of an assassin with a mysterious grudge against her.

Blomkvist, a Salander devotee despite her frequent aloofness toward him, is convinced Salander didn't commit the crimes, and he conducts a parallel investigation to Salander's.

Their paths finally intersect only at the end, in a farmhouse inhabited by the sinister Zala and his blond behemoth of a lackey.

Much detective-work fun is had along the way, but at times the pace gets sluggish and overly complicated. There's a reason the police procedural has been shunted to television in recent decades. Movies have gone away from cerebral stimulation and toward the provocation of raw emotion. In that sense, The Girl Who Played With Fire is a throwback, more of an old-fashioned mystery than a modern thriller.

The most memorable scene involves a fistfight that takes place inside a burning building, and it's notable that neither Salander nor Blomkvist are present.

Fire lets its intricate plot take precedence over its interesting characters, and it particularly shafts the relationship between those characters.

Salander and Blomkvist are opposites, young versus old, wild versus civilized, female versus male, who happen to like each other spectacularly. But they have to spend time together to generate the sparks, romantic as well as platonic, that we're looking for from such a combination.

In the absence of this, what we have is an interesting story that twists and turns, but doesn't involve us emotionally beyond what it automatically achieves by having Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander walking around in a Yankees hoodie with a loaded .345 in her hand.

And that's not bad!

But it's not great, either. Watch for the David Fincher remakes of these movies. Fincher's been known to swing for the fences before, and he may do so again.

There's greatness within the Girl Who... stories, but we haven't seen it on film yet.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 65/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 66/100

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Expendables

Argh!

This movie was supposed to be cool. It was supposed to be fun. It was supposed to be a throwback to the outrageous, outstanding action movies of the 80's, like Commando, Die Hard or Rambo.

Instead it's a surprisingly humorless series of explosions.

And, contrary to popular opinion, the action movies of the 80's were not all about explosions.

The action movies of the 80's were about panache!

Also: explosions.

But you can't leave out the panache. If you do, you get The Expendables, a bland action scenario about a gang of mercenaries who take on a corrupt drug regime on a tiny third world island nation.

What you get is a gunfight, pure and simple.

And that is so disappointing!

The marketing hook promises much more fun: the cast is populated with every action star you can think of. Sly Stallone leads the Expendables. His trusty lieutenant is Jason Statham. His karate expert is Jet Li. His big muscle is Dolph Lundgren. Stallone even has Mickey Rourke around just to give him tattoos.

On the villain side is perfect 80's twirl-your-mustache bad guy Eric Roberts, playing a rogue CIA agent squeezing drug money out of the ruling military junta. He is backed by pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.

So the pieces are really in place for a fun, goofy, ridiculous action movie with lots of panache.

Except... no panache.

I can't report any memorable lines of dialogue because they do not exist. Bizarrely, The Expendables holds back on witty repartee and astonishingly out-of-place one-liners. Flagrantly overlooking the fact that such things are the reason people go to see movies like The Expendables.

Even the action is uninspired. What passes for a set piece is the strafing of a bridge by Stallone and Statham, requiring Eric Roberts and Steve Austin to jump into the water. And get all wet!

The big finale takes place in the presidential palace, a large stone structure that gets entirely demolished by the profligate use of C4 explosives. But as cool as that sounds, it's strangely underplayed. The explosives are detonated when they would logically be detonated, and that's a terrible idea.

This climactic event must come at just the right dramatic moment to achieve its full effect, and it has to be preceded by a Stallone line that goes something like... "Time to get some fresh air."

Instead, ridiculous events are portrayed with something approaching -- ack! -- realism. Or at least restraint.

This is exemplified by a scene in which Stallone fights Steve Austin mano a mano. Big good guy versus big bad guy. What happens? Stallone gets his ass kicked, as his character later freely admits.

Come act three, the task of dispatching the indestructible Steve Austin falls to Stallone crony Randy Couture, an ultimate fighting champ in real life.

This smacks of humility on Stallone's part. He's worried audiences won't buy a sixty year-old man defeating a professional athlete twice his height and weight.

But we already bought it! That's what we paid our ticket money to see! Kick his ass, Stallone, and don't apologize for it.

Overall, there's way too much good sense in The Expendables, and not nearly enough reckless abandon.

The 80's were a special time, when it seemed not just entertaining, but plausible, that a single man armed with enough ammunition could wipe out entire divisions of enemy troops. And have enough composure to mutter witticisms along the way.

I guess that kind of naivete can't be duplicated in the present. We're just too sophisticated now, just too jaded.

Sigh...

It's our loss.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 32/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks

Sometimes, plot can kill character.

A greedy, splashy, easily-marketable plot can become overemphasized at the expense of character. The last movie I reviewed, Salt, was like that.

Happily, Dinner for Schmucks contains an abundance of entertaining characters, partly because of its plot.

After all, you can't have a dinner for schmucks without schmucks.

The dinner in question is organized by a group of mean-spirited corporate suits who enjoy bringing colorful idiots to a sophisticated dinner party, then watching them make fools of themselves.

Nice-guy Paul Rudd doesn't want to participate, but if he demurs the promotion he's angling for will probably go to someone else.

On the other hand, if he participates, he'll incur the wrath of his beloved girlfriend, who thinks the practice is exceedingly cruel and arrogant.

Enter Steve Carrell's prime weirdo, Barry, a socially-inept IRS agent who spends his spare time -- ALL his spare time -- creating intricate dioramas featuring preserved mouse corpses in period dress.

Carrell is Rudd's ticket to that promotion, so he gives in to weakness and invites Carrell to the dinner.

But because Carrell is an idiot, he shows up at Rudd's apartment one night early and manages to inadvertently throw out Rudd's back, destroy his apartment, and ruin Rudd's relationship with his girlfriend. Because he's just that stupid.

And he's not the only one.

Carrell's IRS boss is played by Zach Galifianakis, who claims to have mind control abilities. Galifianakis only uses these abilities on Carrell. And Carrell, because he is an idiot, is helpless against them.

Rudd's girlfriend, meanwhile, is becoming worrisomely close to a handsome, successful, charming and utterly bizarre conceptual artist played by Jermaine Clement of the cult TV hit Flight of the Conchords.

All these "schmucks" constitute a world of their own, which comes with rules, sensibilities, hopes and dreams that are alien and at times frightening to normal-guy Paul Rudd and, by extension, the audience.

Mostly this strange world is not frightening, though. Mostly it's hilarious.

And the more time we spend with these idiots, the more familiar we become with their motivations and thought processes. Or maybe we're just becoming more like idiots ourselves?

Either way, the movie is just serious enough to pose the question of who the actual idiots are in life.

That's a philosophical tangler I'm not wise enough to solve, but I do know character counts in a story, just as much as plot, and you forsake it at your peril.

The makers of Schmucks -- which is based on a 1998 French film, and you can feel the elements of absurd French humor -- embrace character. Several of them, in fact.

And it makes for a lively, entertaining dinner.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Salt

I like suspending my disbelief.

How else are we to enjoy movies about time travelers, or ghosts, or CIA agents who may be Soviet moles even though the Soviet Empire collapsed twenty years ago, like Angelina Jolie's Evelyn Salt?

I don't mind suspending disbelief at outlandish premises. It's my pleasure.

What I don't like is having that disbelief poisoned, strangled, butchered and burned in front of me. And that's what Salt does. It's a disbelief serial killer.

The movie opens with the thoroughly unpleasant image of Salt being tortured by the North Korean military. This torture is just about all we're going to get in terms of establishing our main character.

And in case you were wondering about that character, Salt is the kind of person who moans "I'm not a spy" whilst getting tortured.

Interesting!

Before we know it, it's several years later, and Salt is an apparently happy desk agent at headquarters in Washington D.C.

In walks our inciting incident -- oops, I mean, an elderly Russian gentleman -- who claims to know of a plot to kill the visiting Russian president.

He even knows the identity of the assassin. Guess who it is?

That's right, our gal Salt.

Rather than try to defend herself, Salt makes a dash for the exit.

Not only does she escape from the locked-down CIA building in a breathless and long action sequence, she actually goes on to assassinate the Russian president. She gets caught, but she escapes. She is given safe harbor by the elderly Russian gentleman who got her into all this trouble -- apparently they are old friends -- but then she kills him. She moves heaven and earth to protect her husband, but he gets killed.

The movie flops forward like this in herky-jerky fashion, encouraging the viewer to be utterly convinced that Salt is a devious Soviet agent one moment, then reversing things so we think she is a heroic -- and shockingly athletic -- American patriot the next.

This creates the opposite of my beloved "audience superior position," where the audience knows more than the main character. It creates "inferior position," where the audience tries desperately to follow the story of a character who perpetually knows more than they do. This allows for neat trick endings if the concealed twist proves sparky enough, but two hours is a long time to keep an audience in the dark just for a gotcha ending.

This trick ruined M. Night Shyamalan, by the way.

Anyway, the success of the movie depends on how much we enjoy trying to figure out where the movie is going.

But not only is the solution to the riddle of Salt's allegiances utterly telegraphed --

SPOILER ALERT

-- she noticeably spares guards' lives throughout --

END SPOILER ALERT

-- by the end of the third or fourth whiplash, neither ending -- good Salt or bad Salt -- will make the slightest bit of sense.

And it doesn't.

Instead of wrapping up its numerous plot holes one by one on the way to a unified ending, Salt keeps throwing out more and more ludicrous scenarios that raise way more questions than they answer. It all culminates in a gun battle that rages through the White House, admission to which Salt was able to gain by dressing up as a man.

Salt seems intent on upping the ante of implausibility till its last frame, in which Salt convinces multiple-times-burned CIA boss Chiwetel Ejiofor to set Salt free by letting her jump out of a moving helicopter into the Potomac River at night.

This final outburst of impossibility -- physical as well as psychological -- reveals Salt to be the rollicking good comedy it is.

Seen in this light, it is an entirely successful film. Completely unselfconscious and full of good-for-the-soul belly laughs.

I did mention the movie takes place in the present day, but deals with Soviet spies unwilling to give up the ghost on the Cold War, right?

Hysterical!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 17/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 15/100

How Good As Unintentional Comedy: 81/100

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Inception

Dear Everyone Who Liked the Movie Inception,

I know you're feeling touchy at the moment.

You've been eager to see talented writer/director Chris Nolan's mind-bending science-fiction actioner for months. You pored over every trailer. You quivered at every advertisement. You soaked up the positive buzz that grew and grew in the days leading up to the flick's release.

Then you saw it.

And you worked REALLY hard to follow the story.

You kept your eyes tightly focused on the screen throughout the movie's absurdly bloated two hour and twenty-eight minute running time.

You listened attentively to the ongoing explanations of what the hell was happening in a given scene, from each and every character except the curiously and conveniently ignorant Ellen Page character.

You tried to keep track of whether the action was taking place in someone's dream, or in a dream within that dream, or a dream within THAT dream, or even, and we hit this point occasionally, a dream within THAT dream.

Or whether the action was taking place in the regular old waking world.

Which may not have existed at all.

You came away from the movie with a dim grasp of what had just happened. You avoided the demoralization of being completely lost in the intricate complexity of something you were trying to understand. You're 80% certain you understood at least half of Inception.

And you feel really chuffed about that, as the British say.

Congratulations.

But now you're trying to convince the rest of us that Inception is a good movie.

You're panicked by the critical backlash rapidly gaining steam in the days after the movie's fanfared and financially successful opening weekend.

Said backlash threatens to undermine all your hard work, not to mention that invisible boy scout badge you're wearing as one of the privileged few geniuses intelligent enough to "get" the movie.

But here's the thing: a movie is not supposed to be a sudoku puzzle.

And I'm not trying to put limits on what a movie can or can't be. In fact, I'm trying to do the opposite. I'm trying to say a movie can -- and should -- be much, much, much MORE than a sudoku puzzle.

It can and should be an emotionally involving experience in which characters who resemble living human beings risk life and limb in defense or pursuit of something worthwhile. They can and should succeed or fail based on their unique combination of strengths and weaknesses, combined with the amount of wisdom and courage they are able to acquire over the course of the movie.

Great stories invite us into a world different from our own in particulars, but intensely familiar in its rulesets and psychological landscapes.

Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far, far away, but its portrayal of a young man confronting a terrifying father figure is all-too-familiar.

Inception's portrayal of a corporate thief's attempt to return to his children, who may or may not exist, by implanting in the mind of a reasonably friendly captain of industry the urge to dismantle his father's corporate empire so the thief's employer can vault from being the number two biggest energy company in the world to being the number one biggest energy company in the world, while at the same time confronting the dangerous psychic apparition of his dead wife who may or may not have been killed by the thief himself, and threatens to plunge everyone involved in the reverse-heist to a subjectively time-shifted eternity in the cellar of the industry captain's psyche, which is called limbo, is, um, less familiar.

After all, wasn't it Aragorn who said in The Lord of the Rings that "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."

Some things don't change with the passage of time, no matter how cool our ipods get.

For the record, Lord of the Rings was a thousand page epic about a frightened hobbit trying to drop a powerful ring into a lava pool in the backyard of its evil owner.

Simplicity is a virtue.

It really, really is.

And Inception practically declares war on simplicity with a plot that is so complicated it remains opaque despite the fact that 95% of the movie's dialogue is devoted to untangling it.

I've heard the rumor that Nolan spent ten years working on the script for Inception.

That's bullshit.

He may have come up with the original idea ten years ago, but he has categorically not spent ten years laboring over it.

If he had, he would have gotten his mind around his own story much better than he did. He would have found the core of simplicity within the complications his idea presents. He would have found the key to fashioning something primal out of something cerebral. He would have created something damn close to a masterpiece.

Instead he foisted upon us a first draft with maybe four solid months of thought behind it.

And you, damnable Inception defender, are trying to convince us otherwise.

But a complicated story is not necessarily intelligent, and a difficult story is not necessarily deep.

No matter what you say, you're not going to change the simple truth.

Inception sucked.

Thank you for your attention.

I'll see you all in hell!

Sincerely,

Neil Gaughan

SCORE

How Accomplished: 17/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 11/100

Friday, July 16, 2010

Predators

When the director's name is Nimrod, you know you're in trouble.

The new alien action movie, Predators, is directed by a Los Angeleno of Hungarian descent named Nimrod Antal. Nimrod spent much of his adulthood directing Hungarian commercials and music videos, which is exactly the kind of resume Hollywood likes when it goes looking for someone to direct a forty-million dollar action movie.

The thinking goes, literacy in the English language is an impediment when it comes to fashioning a movie in today's action market, which is dominated by international grosses.

The less talking, and the less plot logic, the better, since unsophisticated, teenage foreign audiences not completely comfortable with English prefer big, mindless smash-ups to more carefully crafted action pieces. Come to think of it, "unsophisticated teenage audiences not completely comfortable with English" describes large swaths of the United States market as well.

The point is, there's a big audience for stupid and illogical action movies. And Hollywood couldn't be happier about this. They prefer making dumb action pics to smart ones since the dumb ones are far easier to produce consistently.

Thus, Nimrod Antal finds himself in the director's chair putting together the sadly amateurish, puerile Predators.

The movie finds Oscar-winner Adrien Brody's soldier of fortune stranded on an alien planet with half a dozen assorted military types from every corner of the Earth.

This group soon realizes they are the featured attraction in a vast alien game preserve. Their hunters are the mandible-faced, dreadlocked alien creatures first introduced in the 1997 Arnold Schwarzenegger pic Predator.

But whereas that movie was expertly staged, shot and crafted by the immortal John McTiernan, this version is slack, dull and perplexingly formless.

It's more of an action scenario than an action story. It's simple kill-or-be-killed, and therefore it's pretty disappointing that Antal lavishes no attention on something as important as geographical consistency.

Sometimes the alien landscape consists of a vast forest. Sometimes it consists of a barren plain. There's a campsite, there's a river and there's a couple of humongous, abandoned space ships. But what spatial relation these things have to each other -- the distance between them -- is utterly impossible to determine.

So there's lots of scenes where our group of mercenaries are marching through the woods, but God knows where they're going or where they've been. They never formulate an intelligible plan till the end, when the story dictates it's time to wrap things up.

Said plan revolves around the fact that the predators have strung up one of their own -- with rope! -- and left him at the aforementioned campsite.

Why the captive predator has been tied up is never addressed. He simply exists so Adrien Brody can free him to use against the other predators.

The entire movie is like this. Whatever is handy for a given scene suddenly appears, either to help the characters or hinder them, as the writers require. There is no sense of a larger reality the story takes place within. Everything exists merely to serve the writers' needs, and that kind of contrivance ruins whatever legitimately exciting action might otherwise result from an alien hunting party tracking a group of humans.

Adding insult to injury, there are enough callbacks to the original 1987 film, such as Schwarzenegger's memorable line, "Kill me! I'm here!" to really piss off a fan of that original film.

I know because I am a fan of the original film, and I was pissed off throughout the running time of Predators.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 34/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 34/100

1987's Predator

How Accomplished: 95/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 97/100