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