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

Monday, July 5, 2010

Twilight: Eclipse

Cripes. I've been swept up in Twilight mania.

How embarrassing.

This doesn't mean I spent last week camped out on Sunset Boulevard waiting for the third movie in the series to open in theaters. It doesn't mean I own any Twilight merchandise and it doesn't mean I belong to either Team Edward or Team Jacob.

Thank God for small favors.

But it does mean I'm psychologically "in" on the adventures of that mopey high school sulker, Bella, and her boyfriend's clan of vampires, the Cullens.

In this installment, the Cullens' benign dominance of the Pacific Northwest -- dominance, at least, in terms of the supernatural community -- is challenged by a growing army of newborn vamps being created and trained by a mysterious young chap named Riley.

This chap is having his strings pulled by parties we are already familiar with. Namely, the red-headed vampiress named Victoria, as well as that sinister band of vampiric authorities called the Volturi.

The nice thing about this plot structure is that we have a big event -- the brewing battle between the bad guy vampire army and a temporary Cullen/werewolves alliance -- to look forward to. This creates anticipation, and anticipation is always good. It also creates a ready-made third act, the final twenty-five minutes of a movie where all questions are finally answered.

And questions ARE answered. Bella makes a seemingly irrevocable choice between Edward and Jacob. The Victorian vendetta is put to rest. And the Volturi... well, there are two more movies to go, so I guess not ALL questions can be fully resolved.

As in the previous two installments, there's lots of good craft at work in Eclipse. Scripter Melissa Rosenberg writes nice, tight scenes and has a great sense of pacing and rhythm. The directing, this time by Hard Candy director David Slade, is not quite as distinguished as the work of Hardwicke and Weitz, but it's sound. And the acting, while not exceptional, isn't nearly as bad as critics claim.

It's interesting how much abuse the Twilight stories take. I think it's because, at first glance, it's difficult to comprehend how such an unpedigreed and apparently unpromising set of novels/movies can be so popular.

After all, no one heard of Stephenie Meyer before these books appeared. No one heard of Kristen Stewart. And the premise has to do with vampires and werewolves. Ack! Enough with the vampire stories already!

But whenever a story works, it's because there's a kind of magic at play which cannot be pinned down. So no, Stephenie Meyer is not a great prose stylist. And no, Kristen Stewart isn't the next coming of Meryl Streep. And yes, we've been treated to way too many vampire stories in the past decade.

But I will always take a story that works despite its inferior constituent parts over a story that doesn't work despite world-class talent at every position.

And the Twilight stories work. They just do.

I'm sorry.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 86/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 93/100

Friday, July 2, 2010

Knight and Day

I'm getting jaded.

When the opening sequence of Knight and Day, the new Tom cruise/Cameron Diaz action romancer, turned out to be superb, I thoroughly enjoyed it...

...but in my bones I knew it wouldn't last.

And it didn't.

The opening sequence has Tom Cruise's charismatic secret agent sharing a red eye flight with Cameron Diaz's nice and normal June Havens, on her way home to attend her sister's wedding.

After some flirtatious banter, Diaz excuses herself to use the rest room and work up the courage to ask Cruise out. Meanwhile, Cruise is attacked by the dozen or so fellow passengers on the flight, all of whom are sinister enemies intent on killing him.

But once Cruise kills THEM, as well as the pilot and co-pilot, he has to inform a previously-smitten Diaz that everyone else on the plane is dead -- due to the fact that, you know, he killed them -- and he's now going to try to land the plane in a cornfield.

Great sequence. Exciting, clever and funny all at the same time. We have an immediate grasp of who the characters are and what kind of movie we're in.

Then gravity sets in and the movie finds its level.

That level isn't bad. It's fun, it's breezy, and it doesn't mean anyone any harm. It's just kind of fluffy and predictable, is all.

You see, everyone in the movie is chasing a new invention, a battery that fits into the palm of your hand but can power a small city using a new kind of -- uh oh, I'm boring you already, aren't I? Yep, that's how I felt too.

So everyone's chasing this powerful new device, and that means we can expect car chases, gunfights and clever banter as Cruise repeatedly saves the life of Diaz, who has attracted the ire of Cruise's enemies.

Don't worry, female empowerment is at work. By the end of the movie, Diaz has embraced the action hero lifestyle, even rescuing Cruise at the end in a telegraphed role reversal.

The title, cooked up by marketing execs, has come under fire for contributing to the film's disappointing box office results. The complaint is that while Cruise's character goes by the name "Knight," Diaz's character is not named "Day."

So the title is largely nonsensical and irrelevant, though it does sound kind of cool.

And that accurately describes the movie.

So, in a sense, it's the perfect title.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 58/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 62/100