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