Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shame

What jumps out about Shame is that NC-17 rating.

You don’t get the NC-17 for violence. You only get it for sex.

Extreme sex.

So it was with great eagerness I waited for the movie to begin. I was about to see material that people under seventeen simply could not handle.

As a deeply serious and mature person, I knew I could handle whatever sexual abominations the movie presented, and furthermore I could discern the artistic intent of said abominations, probably coming away with some very trenchant insights into the human condition. Oh yeah, I could handle the NC-17.

But boy was I curious to know what envelope was getting pushed.

I knew the movie dealt with a sex addict played by the arthouse version of Ryan Gosling, 2011’s hottest serious actor, Michael Fassbender.

I also knew the movie co-starred Carey Mulligan, the arthouse version of Emma Stone, as Fassbender’s equally screwed up sister.

Incest was certainly in play. Heck, with sex addiction, almost anything was in play. I was giddy as the curtain raised on the film.

In the first scene we meet Fassbender’s character on a crowded subway train. He spies an attractive woman sitting opposite him. He also spies the equally attractive diamond on her fourth finger. Undaunted, he gives her the smoldering, unwavering stare of the primeval hunter.

The woman tries to ignore him, but he’s so damn handsome, and his gaze is so intense and unapologetic, she gets into a hot little exchange of googly-eyes.

Then the train arrives at her stop. She gets off with a crush of other commuters. Fassbender leaps off the train to follow her, though this is not his stop. He trails her through the crowded station, but quickly loses sight of her. Despite his best tracking efforts… she’s gone.

He gets back onto the train, defeated and unfulfilled.

Welcome to his world.


Shame is a character study, and, happily, the character being studied is a pretty interesting guy. Not because he’s smart, or deep, or talented, or unusual. He’s none of these things. He can’t even keep up a decent conversation on a date.

But he’s an extremely well-drawn specimen of homo urbanicus modernicus. He’s got a good job – the nature of which is wisely left generic – aren’t all jobs generic these days? – he’s got a good apartment and a good wardrobe, and because he’s super-handsome and because he’s a smooth, instinctive sexual shark, he does extremely well with the ladies.

But of course it’s not enough.

It’s not enough because he lives in the modern world, which means his life is a howling void of meaningless ennui.

(I know, life turns into a howling void in almost any era – Thoreau certainly appreciated this fact – but Shame approaches the universal through a very current specificity which, again, is wise.)

Fassbender fills the void with his sex addiction. This means he’s hitting on every attractive woman around him, all the time.

All.

The.

Time.

When he’s not having sex with someone he picked up, he’s having sex with a prostitute. He hires them so often he gets discount cards like at a frozen yogurt shop.

And when he’s not doing that, he’s masturbating to internet porn.

You could say the guy’s got a real problem.

What I like about the movie is that it’s not really about sex addiction. Movies that are about what they’re about are superficial and boring. Instead, Shame is about that ennui, that sense of purposelessness, that afflicts many/most of us. Its real cause is Fassbender’s inability to create emotional relationships. He’s deeply, desperately alone in life, which helps explain that manic drive toward sexual connection. It’s all he has.

Enter his sister.

She comes to live with him, having bailed on the latest of a string of loser boyfriends. Fassbender’s exasperated by her presence, and they end up in a subtle kind of war with each other, but the two are a lot alike. They are both sad, they are both alone, and they are each other’s best hope of having a meaningful relationship in life. Or of learning how to have it with others.

So of course they alienate each other as much as possible.

Shame is a smart and perceptive film, but given its subject matter and reputation, what’s surprising is how conventional it is. Replace sex addiction with Asperger’s or alcoholism and we’ve seen this movie a hundred times. Before the film began I was ready to be scandalized. By the time it ended I had long stopped fearing/hoping for novel forms of perversity. Instead I appreciated Shame for the honest, simple film about human beings that it is. I’m almost tempted to call it sweet.

So where the heck did that NC-17 come from?!

It’s the sheer volume of sex in the movie. Maybe twenty percent of the running time is a sex scene.

Think about that.

Nearly twenty percent of the running time is a sex scene.

Which is unconventional and daring, I suppose, but as every savvy modernist knows, it’s not the quantity of the sex that matters, it’s the quality.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 81/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 84/100

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Boy, is that a good title.

I'm sure it was a fine day for author John LeCarre -- sometime in the early 70's? -- when the title struck him. He was probably thinking of something else, maybe even working on the text of the novel, but in the back of his mind he was reciting the list of characters at the center of this story, the codenames of the four top intelligence chiefs in the British SIS:

Tinker. Tailor. Soldier.

...

Poorman.

That's right, Poorman. The list comes from a children's rhyme I have never heard of, and it runs "Tinker, tailor, soldier, poorman."

And what an awful title that would have made.

But one of those four characters is a spy, whom George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman in the new film version, is tasked with uncovering.

It's the central, relentless question of the movie:

Tinker, tailor, soldier, or poorman?

Which of these is a spy?

So LeCarre was turning the question over in his mind, probably for years: Tinker? Tailor? Soldier? Poorman? He said it over and over to himself. Then, one day (like I said, probably while he was actively thinking about something else), he said, "Tinker, tailor, soldier..."

...

SPY!

It must have hit him like a thunderbolt. What rhythm, what snap, what intrigue and allure. LeCarre had his title.

Almost forty years later we've got the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a smart, thick, atmospheric, authentic slow burn of a movie.

And I do mean slow.

Tinker is a thriller that moves through molasses.


There are lots of silences in the movie. There are lots of characters and lots of subplots. There are flashbacks.

It's a movie that could very easily have lost its way, if it didn't have two things going for it: 1) that central, driving, relentless question: tinker? tailor? soldier? spy? and 2) a really good bad guy.

The bad guy exists entirely off-screen, a la Kaiser Sose (or Sauron the Great!), but he exerts a monumental pull on the story. He is Karla, director of Soviet Intelligence. He is the chessplayer to end all chessplayers, the master manipulator, the unbeatable schemer. We never see his face.

Gary Oldman's weary, wary spyhunter has met the man, only once, many years ago, and he is haunted by the feeling that he revealed too much of himself in that meeting.

It's a dangerous thing to reveal something of yourself in the shadowy world of spycraft -- at least in the fictional version of said world, which is all we're concerned with here.

And that gives a necessary personal edge to the proceedings.

There was a danger that Tinker would come out like a Mission Impossible movie, just infinitely slower and with a less attractive cast -- nullifying the only two positive qualities of a Mission Impossible movie.

But the danger is deftly avoided. Tinker stays true to what it is: a grainy, dimly-lit, whispery journey into a world of complicated politics and even more complicated machinations. A world where personal relationships always get sacrificed at the altar of the espionage business. That's a sad thing, and everyone involved registers the sadness.

It may not be great, and it's certainly not exciting. But Tinker shows what you can achieve off the strength of a great title and a powerful central question.

Tinker?

Tailor?

Soldier?

Spy?








--spoiler alert--











Tailor!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 69/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Artist


This movie is an old-fashioned people pleaser.

It’s so old-fashioned that it’s in black and white, and silent.

You wouldn’t think a movie could get away with being a silent film these days, but, delightfully, The Artist gets away clean.

Fittingly, the protagonist is a silent film star. His name is George Valentin, and in the year 1927 his celebrity is at its peak – as is his personal wealth. He’s a little pompous and a little vain, but we like him because he’s got a winning smile, he’s always nice to his co-workers, down to the least of the P.A.’s – secretly a huge ingredient in likability; if you want us to bond with a character, just show us he’s on first-name terms with the janitor and the job is done – and also he has the approval of his perky co-star Uggy, a Jack Russell Terrier who netted himself the Palm Dog at Cannes this year.

(I’m not joking! You can look it up.)

Valentin’s star is so bright that he launches the career of a fresh-faced starlet without even trying. That starlet is Peppy Miller, a gutsy groupie who kisses Valentin on the cheek during a photo shoot, which garners her fifteen minutes of fame. She wisely parlays that into a small role on Valentin’s next film.

While on set, Valentin and Peppy fall for each other. What’s wonderful, though, is that nothing happens between them – there’s a big age difference and, oh yeah, Valentin is married. Instead, the relationship develops purely through subtext, showing that good writing is good writing whether or not there’s actual dialogue in a film.


Valentin and Peppy go their separate ways. Then the stock market crashes, and their ways diverge even further. Valentin loses everything he had. Making matters worse, “talkies” have just come onto the scene, and suddenly Valentin is out of a job. His pantomimed acting style no longer plays with audiences in the age of sound.

Conversely, Peppy’s career takes off. She’s the new It girl in the world of talkies.

Peppy’s fortunes just go up, up, up, while Valentin’s go equally far down. So much so that the second half of the movie loses much of the pleasant charm of the first. We’re subjected to a few too many Valentin-down-and-out scenes.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, and overall The Artist is a good time at the movies, especially since it’s the only silent film you’re going to see this year.

There’s a lot of talk this movie might take home Best Picture, but I don’t think it’s substantive enough to really contend – at least in a perfect world. An indication of the movie’s shortcomings lies in the title, and its failure to resonate. The title doesn’t really mean anything in the context of the story. Valentin doesn’t consider himself an artist, nor does anyone else. And if a movie’s title has little meaning, odds are the movie itself isn’t exactly bursting with significance.

But hey, it’s still got the neat gimmick of no dialogue, it’s still got some winsome characters, and above all, it’s got Uggy, the prize-winning Jack Russell Terrier.

I'm pulling for him to win Best Supporting Actor this year. The speech would be awesome.

SCORE

How Accomplished:  76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100

Friday, December 2, 2011

My Week with Marilyn


Ah, Oscar season!

It’s nice to see award contenders finally appearing in theaters. Surely in the running for Best Picture will be My Week with Marilyn, based on Colin Clark’s 1996 memoir of his time spent on the set of a forgettable romantic comedy in 1957, starring the unforgettable Marilyn Monroe and a British actor named Laurence Olivier.

Monroe was, um, trouble on the set.

She was always late, she never knew her lines, and she was terminally insecure around the accomplished cast of British actors. Oh, and she popped a lot of pills.

But man was she gorgeous.

So gorgeous that everyone on set was effectively in love with her. And yet, it was 23 year-old Colin Clark that got to be her special companion, at least for one memorable week, during filming.

This came about because Marilyn’s erratic behavior gradually alienated everyone else, including Olivier – played terrifically by one-time “the next Olivier” Kenneth Branagh. As a consequence, the set grew increasingly antagonistic toward Marilyn, which made her insecurities skyrocket and her diva-ish behavior even worse.

Enter starstruck, lovelorn, third assistant director Colin. So unstinting and unconditional was his affection for Monroe that he became her buffer against the judgmentalism of the others. She took him everywhere, including visits to Buckingham Palace, jaunts to the country – which included skinnydipping! – and even snuggle sessions in bed.

The story is presented as if they didn’t actually have sex, but Monroe certainly used her sexuality to bind Colin to her completely. Colin is sweet and simple, and on the surface, Marilyn seems the same. But though Olivier’s warning to Colin, that Marilyn is savvier than she appears, is lost on Colin, it is not lost on us.

Marilyn DID know what she was doing.


The week ends as we knew it must, with Marilyn saying goodbye – though if the movie is true to life, her farewell to Colin was both classy and considerate – and Colin returning to his life of obscurity. Also a life without Emma Watson, a fellow production employee whom Colin was courting before the Marilyn Monroe train chugged into station.

All in all, Colin seems mostly enchanted by his week with Marilyn, and in the end he seems to regret nothing, not even Emma Watson.

The whole thing reminds me of my favorite movie from 2009, An Education, with the gender roles reversed. These are classic sadder-but-wiser stories, and maybe the reason I like An Education more is that the protagonist of that film was made significantly sadder by the end of her affair, and so, became commensurately wiser.

Unlike Carey Mulligan, Colin just wishes his week with Marilyn could go on forever. He doesn’t really learn anything about Marilyn, or himself.

And so we’ve got a good film, not a great one. We do, however, have a great performance from Michelle Williams. Her Monroe is utterly beguiling, and I don’t see any way on this Earth she doesn’t win the Best Actress statuette for her efforts.

Not to say she deserves it – who deserves any of these ridiculous awards? – but she’s impersonating a famous figure in a period drama, everyone in town knows her and likes her, she’s never won an award, and she’s got the tragic background thing in spades.

So put all your money on Williams to win, and My Week with Marilyn to place.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 83/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 81/100

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Immortals


It was a nice warm day in Los Angeles yesterday, so I did something not unusual on a day off from work.

I took a book over to the Century City shopping center, sat outside reading in the sun, then ducked into the movie theater for a show.

The book was a brand new translation of The Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. It places an emphasis on accessibility and flow rather than strict fidelity to sources that are questionable anyway.

As a consequence, it’s a delight to read.

My pulse actually pounded as I read of Achilles’ fateful split with Agamemnon, Odysseus’ repeated demonstrations that he is a clever bastard, and Hector’s gradual approach toward a climactic fight with an adversary he simply can not overcome.

Then it was time to see the movie: Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh, the heavy-on-visuals auteur behind The Cell and The Fall, as well as some lavish music videos and commercials. He’s about a third of a Kubrick, which means he has a better eye for visuals than almost anyone else out there right now.

The writers are a couple of newbies, a pair of Greek brothers who refashioned old myths into cinematic shape.

So how do they stack up against Homer?

Um, not too well.


Henry Cavill plays Theseus, a handsome but stupid peasant who spends much of his time chopping wood shirtless. He’s a favorite of Zeus on account of his tremendous courage, though how that courage has been demonstrated chopping wood is unclear.

Our story gets rolling when the dastardly King Hyperion rolls into town with an army of Cretans, intent on getting his hands on the Bow of Epirus, a magical weapon capable of freeing the ultra-powerful Titans, who are caged beneath the earth after losing a prehistoric battle against the Olympian gods.

Because naturally a magic bow is what you want to free people from a magic prison.

Don’t you know anything?

The only person who can stop Hyperion – played by a satisfactorily growling Mickey Rourke – is the wood chopper himself, Theseus. First, Theseus tries to keep the bow hidden from Hyperion by escaping with Freida Pinto’s oracular Phaedra, the only person who knows where the bow is.

Failing this, he tries to run off with the bow himself, but he gets knocked on the head by one of Hyperion’s soldiers, and Hyperion gets the bow instead.

So Theseus runs to the walled palace where the nefarious Titans are housed and organizes a defense against the approaching Cretans.

This defense doesn’t work too well – maybe because Theseus’ rousing speech to the defenders was so cliché-ridden – so Hyperion gets to fire off a magic arrow at the magic prison, and voila, Titans are running around.

The movie climaxes in a predictable and drab action finale, wherein the Olympian gods take on the Titans while Theseus tracks down Hyperion to engage him in fisticuffs.

Immortals has its visual treats, but whenever the movie slowed down for a dialogue scene between two characters, I slipped into the lighted hallway to read a couple pages of The Iliad. I kept an ear on the movie’s dialogue, just to make sure I didn’t miss any plot points (I didn’t), but there’s not a single memorable line – or action, for that matter – in the entirety of the film.

By contrast, everything that happens in The Iliad seems monumentally important, driving toward a fated climax that encapsulates the grandeur and sadness of the human condition itself.

For all her beauty, Helen is doomed to unhappiness. For all Hector’s nobility, he is doomed to die. For all Odysseus’ smarts, he is slated for a long, long trip home.

Great stories like this are so unthinkably difficult to compose that we still retranslate epic poems that are three thousand years old. We do so because great stories are just that awesome, and there are never enough of them to go around.

And Immortals certainly isn’t adding to their number.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 24/100

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hugo

A setting can be an enormous boon to a story. It can also swallow it whole.

Recently I criticized the movie In Time for not fleshing out its setting enough. I couldn't buy into the reality of the movie, so I couldn't enjoy the story.

The new Martin Scorcese-directed, family film Hugo has the opposite problem. It is so in love with its environment that it utterly derails the protagonist's narrative in order to explore the private lives of secondary characters with insane amounts of depth.

As a consequence, the movie feels episodic to the point that it's almost an anthology of unrelated tales, all of which happen to take place at a bustling train station slash shopping plaza in Paris in the 1930's.

At first we're led to believe the central character is Hugo, a pre-teen street urchin who lives inside the station's clock. Hugo is trying to repair a clockwork person, an automaton, who is Hugo's last remaining link to his father, a clockmaker who died in a museum fire.


Hugo keeps body and soul together by stealing food, which he must do while avoiding the cruel station inspector and his agressive german shepherd.

The station inspector is in love with a pretty florist, by the way, who lost a brother in World War One, but he's self-conscious about his gimpy left leg, a wound also acquired in the War -- whoops, whoops, I'm losing the thread here. Sorry.

Anyway, one day Hugo runs afoul of toy store owner Ben Kingsley, who steals the notebook which contains all of Hugo's mechanical sketchings. This leads Hugo to go to Kingsley's house, where he meets Kingsley's goddaughter Isabelle, a friendly girl who pledges to help Hugo recover his notebook.

Isabelle is a cheerful girl, but kind of lonely. All her friends are books, really, and she spends so much time at the bookstore she's on familiar terms with the owner, Monsieur Labisse, who -- whoops, off track again. My bad! Back to the main story.

Hugo and Isabelle discover, by sheer chance, that a key on a chain given to Isabelle by her godmother fits neatly into a lock on the automaton, which triggers the automaton to make a drawing, which leads Hugo and Isabelle to uncover the fact that the Ben Kingsley character was a prolific cinematographer in his younger days.

Kingsley is a bitter old coot at this point, but only because he'd rather be making movies than selling toys.

And... and... and...

...and the rest of the movie is pretty much about Ben Kingsley.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, wait a second, what about that notebook Hugo was after? Did he ever recover that? Did it make any difference to the plot? The answers, in order, are 1) What about it? 2) No, and 3) No.

Nothing really matters to the plot in Hugo because everything is carefully contrived to reveal character backstory. It's the backstory that matters to Scorcese, overrated screenwriter John Logan, and perhaps author Brian Selznick. (I can't be sure. I haven't read the novel.)

What's missing, unfortunately, is frontstory.

The things that happen in the here and now of Hugo are mostly irrelevant and always meandering.

The movie is rendered entirely in 3D computer graphics, which are now so convincing I almost remember the movie as live action. This raises the curious question that if CGI starts to look identical to live action -- if computerized Ben Kingsley looks just like real Ben Kingsley -- then why not just shoot the thing AS live action?

I'm not sure. And I'm not sure why the movie loses interest in the quest of its main character so completely that it devotes itself to alternate characters like Kingsley and the station inspector.

But it does.

Unfortunately, Hugo is all setting, and, in the end, only setting.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 18/200

How Much I Enjoyed: 22/100

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1

So I've got a theory on why there are so many Twilight haters out there.

(Obviously you'll want to stop whatever you're doing immediately.)

My theory is this:

The Twilight stories deal with adolescence. They are one big metaphor for sexual awakening. They begin when Bella Swan enters Forks, Washington; a symbolic passage into a "foreign land" which is the opposite of her old home. Whereas Arizona was sunny, happy and dry, Forks WA is wet, gloomy and overcast. Welcome to adolescence, Bella!

Bella soon meets a handsome guy who, now that we're freshly adolescent, is practically a different species altogether. Very attractive, but also somewhat scary and dangerous.

She falls for him, he falls for her, and we're launched into a series of hugely melodramatic adventures that magnificently capture the emotional experience of being a teenaged girl. All sixteen year-olds are Bella, and they've all got an Edward.

And that's amazing. Huge kudos to Stephenie Meyer, the writer who pulled it off.

This is actually the POINT of literature. To put us in a fictional setting that utterly captures the spirit of our (alas) non-fictional lives.

So why all the haters?

My theory says, it's because of the subject matter, and I don't mean vampires and werewolves. I mean adolescence.

I'm racking my brain trying to come up with a classic novel or movie which deals with adolescence. Not pre-adolescence, there are a billion of those, from E.T. to Harry Potter, and not post-adolescence, which comprises 98% of all stories.

But adolescence itself, in all its awkward, fumbling, pathetic glory.

My theory says that Twilight haters are embarrassed by memories of their own adolescence, and the Twilight stories bring all those memories back. Childhood's fun to revisit, with its uncomplicated friendships and its long summer days, and early adulthood too, with its heady optimism and newfound independence.

But adolescence, with its work-in-progress social skills, brutal high school hierarchy, and emerging sexuality -- also verrry much a work-in-progress -- well, heck, who wants to revisit that?

The haters sure don't. And they hate the fact that the Twilight stories force them to do so. Even if they refuse to read the books or see the movies, it's impossible to avoid all the posters and magazine articles. Wherever you go these days, Edward and Bella are staring back at you.

(I have a corollary theory about all the Kristen Stewart hatred. I think the prospect of being stuck with Stewart for the next forty years, constantly reminded of stupid things said or done when we were seventeen, is too much for some to bear.)

Anyway, that's my theory.

Armed with it, I was looking forward to seeing the penultimate Twilight movie. I had enjoyed the previous three, and when I enjoyed this one, I knew I would have the added satisfaction of demonstrating my calm sense of self-acceptance, and maybe even striking a blow for artistic integrity.

Woo hoo!

Then I saw the movie.



Part One of the filmic version of Book Four in Stephenie Meyer's vampires series simply doesn't work.

And truth be told, I'm not sure why. I probably spent all my intellectual energy thinking about why the overall series does work.

But here are some thoughts:

-The first half of the book, any book really, is all set-ups and exposition, with precious few payoffs. Cutting a book in half and making two movies from it can result in a very limp, overdrawn first movie. See the Harry Potter finale for an example.

-We've sort of wandered off the central metaphor with the plot of this book -- oh, I guess I'd better recount that plot. Here it is:

The first quarter of Part One deals with the wedding of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. The second deals with their romantic honeymoon on an island off the coast of Brazil, during which Bella and Edward have interspecies sex. The third and fourth quarters are preoccupied with Bella's unnatural pregnancy, the imminent battle between vampires and werewolves this pregnancy precipitates, and the birth itself, which practically defines the word "complications."

So if the central metaphor stands for adolescence -- and it does -- you can see how we're dealing with some not-very-adolescent issues all of a sudden.

Compounding this...

-Bella plays a passive role in the story. Things are done to her, not by her, and she has little freedom of action throughout. She's bedridden the whole second half of the movie.

Curiously, Stephenie Meyer was quite cognizant of this, and did something very clever with the book. As soon as Bella gets back from her honeymoon, Meyer shifts the POV over to werewolf and spurned lover, Jacob.

This has a bunch of positive consequences. It puts us in the shoes of someone who gets to run around and confront real adversaries -- his own werewolf clan, intent on killing the woman he loves. It also puts us back on familiar thematic ground. Jacob pines for Bella, but because of apparently insuperable obstacles in the way, he can't be with her. That's adolescence in a nutshell. Good POV shift, Meyer!

But the movie can't do that. It can't have Jacob stand there telling us about things. It has to show them. When it does, Jacob's POV is lost, and (new to the series) director Bill Condon doesn't show much interest in replicating it visually. Jacob, pivotal in the first half of the book, is relegated to minor status in the movie.

Maybe that's why the scene where the werewolf clan convenes to bark at each other was so embarrassing to watch.

Maybe it's also a function of the fact that the superatural elements of the story, once the undercurrent of the fictional world, are now very much in the open. Vampires don't live in the shadows anymore. We live with them. Werewolves don't lurk in the forest. They have staff meetings!

This can work okay in a book, where our imagination can beat any special effects house in the world. But on screen, squabbling werewolves just look silly. And even vampires lose much of their charm when we flip through their CD collection and see what's on their DVR list.

Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 disappoints, but Part 2, due in a year, will feature vampire Bella smashing trees, killing baddies, and getting mistaken for a fashion model.

And that's gotta be an improvement.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 44/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 49/100

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In Time

I felt morally obligated to see this film because it's science fiction, the genre I care about more than any other.

But sheesh.

I really had to make an effort.

Everything about In Time says "don't bother," starting with that lame title.

In Time?

Come on.

At least call the thing Just in Time, which has more heft, better rhythm, and the possibly dubious virtue of punning off the name of its lead, Justin Timberlake.

Yes, I would've been much happier going to see Just in Time.

But there's still that cast. Timberlake is pretty bland and inexperienced to carry a movie on his own -- no shame on him; it's a Herculean task -- Amanda Seyfried shouldn't really be in a movie at all, unless it's an E.T. remake and she's playing E.T., and Olivia Wilde, hotter than a nuclear furnace, still hasn't gotten herself into a decent movie. Does she even read the scripts she gets sent?

This means it's going to be the writer/director who will shoulder the burden of greatness. If [Just] In Time is going to succeed, it'll be because of Andrew Niccol, the man who brought us the forgettable sci-fi thriller Gattaca, and the further lumpen efforts, S1m0ne, The Terminal, and Lord of War.

The man has made a career of mediocrity.

Soooo it's off to the movies!


In Time explores an absurd near future where money has been replaced by time. You don't have dollars in your bank account, you have hours, days and weeks. Rich people have whole centuries. Working man Justin Timberlake -- suspension of disbelief begins now -- has less than a day. This means when he wakes up in the morning, he better show up at work to earn more hours than he spends. Otherwise the glowing digital clock on his forearm will dwindle to zero and he'll keel over dead.

Not content with this much stress in his life, Timberlake throws himself into harm's way helping a well-heeled but dissolute stranger escape the local gang of street toughs from a scrap in a bar.

In gratitude for Timberlake's help, the stranger gives him roughly a hundred years -- all the time he's got -- and then jumps off a bridge. Because he's depressed. Or he read the script and realized he was the catalyst who must provide the inciting incident.

The whole movie plays out like it was written by someone intimately familiar with Hollywood formula, as Niccol surely is, and someone devoted to slavishly following that formula, rather than using it as a springboard for creativity.

So there's a clean break into Act Two when Timberlake takes his bundle of time into the privileged sector of west L.A. -- oops, I mean New Greenwich -- and immediately checks into a ritzy Century City -- oops, I mean New Greenwich again -- hotel.

There he runs across Amanda Seyfried's sheltered heiress, and for reasons I can't determine, goes to the nearest casino and takes on Seyfried's dad in a high-stakes game of poker that will mean death for Timberlake if he loses.

The deck is clumsily stacked in his favor by Niccol, however, so he doesn't lose. (How cool would that have been?) Instead he gets invited to a fancy party in Malibu -- dang it, I mean New Greenwich again -- where he skinnydips with Seyfried and gets confronted by "timekeeper" police detective Cillian Murphy, who accuses Timberlake of having stolen his time from the dead, depressed guy.

You're not going to believe this, but a chase results, and the rest of the movie follows the conventional chase formula. Timberlake and Seyfried turn Bonny and Clyde slash Robin Hood, stealing time from the dastardly rich and redistributing it to the desperate poor.

What's most lame about In Time is not the paper-thin characters, rote plot or gimmicky premise. It's the utter lack of world-building. Beyond the time-for-money substitution, there is absolutely no difference between our world and the In Time world. That's an abdication of the central responsibility of the science fiction writer: to take us somewhere different.

Both Bladerunner and The Matrix took place in a contemporary or near future L.A., just like In Time does, but hoo boy, is there a lot going on behind the scenes in both worlds. One gets the sense there are many stories taking place every day in such imaginary worlds. The one we are watching just happens to be in the foreground.

That's a place worth visiting.

By contrast, In Time transports us nowhere visually, conceptually or thematically.It's just a cheesy crime thriller with a hasty coating of sci-fi varnish.

Which means it's not really sci-fi at all.

I've been had.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 26/100

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Descendants

Dramatic tension.

It’s the name of the game. The most fundamental building block of drama, more fundamental even than conflict.

Dramatic. Tension.

If the outcome of a scene, subplot, or overall story is uncertain, and if it matters, then we’re hooked. And if it keeps being uncertain, and keeps mattering, we’ll stay hooked. We’ll watch your two-hour movie with unwavering attention.

We may not love it. We may not remember it. But we’ll watch.

And that gives you, the filmmaker, time and opportunity to unspool thoughts on character, setting, theme and whatever else is bouncing around that cranium of yours.

But you’d better bring the dramatic tension.

Sadly, the new George Clooney movie, The Descendants, has not the slightest whiff of dramatic tension anywhere in it.

The story follows a middle-aged father of two who lives in Hawaii, has a wife in a coma, and is debating to whom he should sell his family’s historic – and immensely valuable – stretch of seafront property.

Clooney soon learns his wife will never come out of her coma. The doctors will have to pull the plug on her, so it’s up to Clooney to tell the rest of his extended family and make preparations for the funeral.

This entails bringing back daughter Alexandra from boarding school. Alexandra’s a misbehaving seventeen year-old brat – at first – and she only adds to Clooney’s woes.

But she does the plot a valuable service by revealing an early secret, and plot-driver: Clooney’s wife, it turns out, had been cheating on him.

The movie treats this revelation like it’s the shocker of the century, but in dramatic terms it’s pretty humdrum. After all, we’ve never even met the wife, and from what we can tell of Clooney, his law practice comes first anyway. Who cares if his wife – who is dead now and out of the story – was cheating or not?


Unfortunately, the Clooney character cares. He wants to discover the identity of his dead wife’s secret lover. He spends much of the movie trying to do so, with the help of Alexandra and her dim-witted boyfriend Sid, and with younger daughter Scottie tagging along, oblivious.

The investigation is haphazard and meandering, interrupted frequently with visits to various cousins – which comprise the real estate subplot – visits to his wife’s parents, and other tangents.

Mercifully, the relationship between Clooney and Alexandra thaws, and they become allies in the search for the dead wife’s secret lover. This reduces the annoyance factor of bickering co-leads, but it doesn’t do anything for the overall problem: the lack of urgency and stakes in the plot.

As befits a pointless quest, the discovery of the secret lover is anti-climactic. He’s just a normal doofus, a married real estate agent who happens to have a stake in Clooney’s upcoming land deal.

This makes Clooney rethink selling the land at all. He finds a sudden moral center, and decides that Hawaii itself will be better off if the land is not developed at all. As a cousin tells him, however, all he can do is slow down the sale of the land, not prevent it entirely.

So even that plot has no real consequences.

The Descendants tries hard to be a movie about real life, filled with real characters in real(-ish) situations. The trouble with this, as always, is that real life makes for bad drama. Dramatic authenticity must come from capturing the spirit of everyday life, not the form of it.

Because the form of it really sucks.

And so, ultimately, does The Descendants. Don’t listen to what the critics will say about this movie. They will give it plaudits merely for not having special effects or car chases. But there’s more to artistic achievement than that. You have to have scenes and subplots that are the emotional equivalent of special effects and car chases.

You have to have dramatic tension!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 26/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 24/100

Friday, November 18, 2011

Anonymous

The opening credits announce "a film by Roland Emmerich."

The movie hasn't even started, and already we're in trouble.

Emmerich is the arch-fiend behind such atrocities as Independence Day (many like that movie, but they are criminally insane), The Patriot (worst historical drama ever?), Godzilla and 10,000 B.C.

Emmerich is every bit as bad a filmmaker as Michael Bay, but somehow he avoids the scathing reputation Bay is saddled with. I don't know why.

Anonymous would probably hurt his reputation, if anyone were to see it. But that's unlikely. It was originally slated for a wide release, but once distributor Sony saw the finished movie and spit their coffee all over the theater floor, they quickly scaled back its debut to 250 theaters, with the idea of expanding that number if, by some miracle of God, the movie found traction with critics and/or audiences.

But God was not in a miracle kind of mood. The movie, which cost $30m just to make, let alone market, has grossed less than $5m in its first two weeks.

That makes it a big enough flop to have gotten Emmerich's next project, a massive sci-fi movie called Singularity, put into turnaround.

I bet Emmerich wishes he'd never even heard of the Shakespeare authorship question.


Said question has been bouncing around academic circles for at least a hundred years. It rises from two principal facts. You'll notice both are a little slippery.

Fact One: We don't have any solid evidence Shakespeare did write the plays. The surviving copies are all in someone else's hand. In fact, the only penmanship we have from Shakespeare comes from his will, in which he spells his name three different ways, apparently by accident. Hmmm.

Fact Two: Whoever did write the plays seems to be well-read, well-traveled, comfortable in several languages, and possessed of a keen insight into the psychology of the nobility. All qualities hard to imagine existing in the elementary school dropout and wannabe actor named William Shakespeare.

And that's pretty much it.

However, there's another strongly compelling reason to doubt Shakespeare's true identity, and that reason is: it's fun to doubt Shakespeare's identity. It's fun to debate the evidence, it's fun to speculate about who might have really written the plays, and it's fun to watch certain Shakespeare-loving geeks turn bright red when you say, "There's no way some average schmoe like Shakespeare could have written those plays. Impossible."

Boy, does that drive them crazy.

So Emmerich got pulled into the Shakespeare authorship question because it seemed like a good time, but then he had a very bad thought. Why, he thought, hasn't this idea been turned into a movie?

Uh...

So here's the movie he came up with.

The real author of the plays is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and clandestine lover of Queen Elizabeth. As a youth, de Vere gets separated from his true love by a scheming courtier who wants de Vere to go back to his wife, who happens to be the scheming courtier's daughter.

That's one half of the movie. (We jump back and forth.) It happens when de Vere is in his twenties. The other half takes place when de Vere is in his sixties. It concerns de Vere's attempts to -- okay, brace yourself here -- warn Elizabeth of a palace coup being fomented by the son of the original scheming courtier. The way he does this is by writing genius-level plays and filling them with secret codes that will get Elizabeth's subconscious mind spinning until she realizes her life and crown are in imminent danger.


I know, I know, you've got a million questions, starting with: "Wait a second, why not just TELL Elizabeth her closest advisor is plotting against her? Why go to the trouble of writing the cornerstone of the western literary canon?" There's no convincing answer to this question, nor to all the others that spring up, and get roughly trampled, throughout.

Part of the problem is that we are subjected to a massive array of characters, events, locales and subplots, as often happens when writers have to do historical research. This lack of focus is magnified by the chronological back-and-forth, whose confusion is absurdly amplified by the fact that young Edward de Vere looks nothing like old Edward de Vere.

Thus, a misconceived premise, haphazard structure, unrealized characters, a phony setting, embarrassingly stilted dialogue, and one of the most insultingly shallow lines ever uttered about art, by the man who theoretically wrote Shakespeare's plays -- "All art is political," he says, "otherwise it would be mere decoration" -- which is so offensively off-base I don't want to get into it or I'll start turning bright red myself -- as a result of all this, it's easy to think Emmerich maybe shouldn't have made a movie about Shakespeare at all.

But he did. His name's right there on the credits.

Though he probably wishes it weren't.

That authorship thing cuts both ways.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 18/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 17/100

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Margin Call

Best movie of 2011 so far.

It probably won't win Best Picture, since it's fundamentally about business, instead of a disability, or an historical event, or a disability during an historical event. (The King's Speech was perfectly designed to win that Oscar.)

But it probably should win Best Picture. It's the movie The Social Network was trying to be: a socially relevant exploration of the most impactful phenomenon of our time.

Maybe the problem with The Social Network was that Facebook, despite being really cool and really useful, is simply not the most impactful phenomenon of our time. The 2008 recession is. And that's what Margin Call explores.

Sort of.

By conscious intent, the year is never mentioned, nor is the investment firm at the center of the story ever named. In this way, the movie transcends the current moment. It's not just about the 2008 recession, it's about the 1928 crash, it's about the Panic of 1835, it's about every bust in the history of the boom-and-bust cycle.

And it's about how people handle that transition from boom to bust.

The genius breakthrough of the story -- written and directed by first-timer J.C. Chandor on a very low budget with a bevy of stars working for essentially no pay -- is that the action takes place in a mere twenty-four hours.

Those twenty-four hours begin with a round of layoffs at a major Manhattan firm. The people getting laid off are risk-management executives. Who needs them anyway? One of them is Stanley Tucci, who has been nibbling around the edges of a troubling development in the company's overall portfolio projections.

Before leaving the building, Tucci passes his work via flashdrive to a subordinate who survived the culling, Zachary Quinto, with the admonition to "be careful." This warning sets Quinto's mind spinning. He stays late at work that night, plotting out the ramifications of the projections Tucci had examined, and he comes to a startling conclusion: the global economy is about to crater. And no one knows it yet.

He jumps on the phone to his even-younger colleague Penn Badgely, who is at a nightclub with their new uber-boss Paul Bettany. At Quinto's urgent request, Bettany and Badgely return to the office. Bettany takes one look at Quinto's projections, puts down his bottle of champagne and calls his own boss, Kevin Spacey. It's after midnight now, and Spacey is mourning the death of his beloved dog, but Bettany convinces him to drive all the way back into the city.

Spacey's not happy to do this, but as soon as he sees Quinto's projections, he calls his OWN boss, played by the Mentalist himself, Simon Baker. The Mentalist is a cold, ruthless blue-eyed killer who convenes an immediate conference with all our known players, plus Demi Moore. His primary goal is to determine if Quinto's projections have merit. Once he's satisfied that they do -- he gives Moore forty-five minutes to crunch the numbers -- he calls in HIS boss, a friendly, charming, thoroughly terrifying corporate titan played by Jeremy Irons.

This is called escalating action, and it makes the middle act of Margin Call an awful lot of fun.


Once the entire upper echelon of the investment firm -- plus underlings Quinto and Badgely -- are on the eightieth floor of the darkened skyscraper at two in the morning, an earnest, smart, high-stakes discussion unfolds over what the firm's proper course of action now is.

Brilliantly, the film handles complicated economic concepts without ever delving into jargon -- except for one brief speech from Quinto, which Irons confesses to not understanding. Likewise, it broaches major philosophical questions of the modern world, such as the moral responsibilities of a massive international corporation to the economic environment in which it thrives, and it does so without demonizing or exculpating anyone.

Every character in Margin Call has a different perspective on what is going down, a different view of what it means, and a different idea of what must be done now.

In the end, they all come together to sell a hell of a lot of worthless stock derivatives before everyone else figures out what's happening.

In interviews, auteur Chandor has said he conceived the original idea in 2006, two years before the recession happened. His inspiration was a real estate deal he was involved in. A friend with a godfather in high finance suddenly warned him to sell his stake in the deal.

Chandor wondered what that guy in high finance knew, and he wondered what it felt like to walk around with information no one else had.

"What if" questions like these are often fruitful, and the timing of this one gave Chandor a serious head start over competitors who might also have liked to write a smart script about the onset of the recession. Since it takes roughly five years for a script that's going to get good to get good (most scripts won't be good even after a million years of revision; sadly, you never know which is which till you invest your five years), the earliest we should be seeing good movies about the recession is 2013. And that's the very earliest. But Chandor had his head start and he took full advantage. Good for him.

My only real question about Margin Call is whether the movie will age well. I'm curious if it's still engaging in twenty years, when we're in the midst of the Great Boom of the 2030's.

Because I'm already convinced it's a great film now.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 92/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 93/100

Monday, October 31, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

Okay, that’s enough Paranormal Activity for me, thank you very much.

I enjoyed the first two installments, even though they were identical movies, but the third iteration is too much of the same. I’m out.

This is why the Saw franchise has petered out after seven cloned outings, Final Destination looks kind of shaky after five, and even the original Friday the 13th series managed a mere thirteen films before finally collapsing of ennui.

More of the same can be good. But only to a point.

And we have reached that point with the Paranormal Activity series.

Perhaps the reason we got here so fast is the nature of this particular formula. In a PA movie, the first forty-five minutes – more than half of the eighty minute runtime – consist of a slow procession of random scenes from daily life, alternated with creepy happenings that may or may not have a paranormal source.

The characters are convinced that ghosts aren’t real, of course, which was always one of the strengths of the formula – it puts the audience in superior position! – but at this point, it feels obligatory. What was once a savvy way to ground the movie in verisimilitude now feels like a cheap attempt to fill out a thin story.

And maybe it’s not just the repetition. Maybe the story really is thinner this time out.

PA3 follows the original hauntee from PA1, Katie Featherston, but this time she’s a ten year-old girl.

Her parents -- this is 1988, mind you -- have the exact same fascination with videotaping every aspect of their existence that Katie's ill-fated boyfriend did in the first movie, and the ill-fated husband of Katie's sister did in the second movie.

But plausibility's not the problem. Repetition's the problem.

Once again, the female character whines and nags about all the videotaping. The male character takes an inordinately long time to realize what he's videotaping is an evil demon, and the kids -- kid singular in the second one, family dog in the first one -- know way more than anyone else does about what's going on.

The only real innovation in "3" is the creation of the oscillating fan cam, which is a video camera attached to the base of a room fan, which enables side to side viewing as the fan base slowly pivots the camera. Much enjoyment is had from the fact that we have to wait a good twenty seconds for the camera to pan from left to right, then back to left, while we squirm in anticipation of what's changed while we were forced to look the other direction.

Thrills like this one are merely tactical, though. Overall, the problem with PA3 is that it explores a backstory that was best left as backstory.

When, in PA1, Katie Featherston, speaking to her sister, alluded to the strange happenings of their childhood without going into detail, we were spooked. But seeing that backstory play out moment by moment, the mystery and intrigue is stripped from it.

The frightening truth is that some things are not meant to be known.

And one of them is the backstory of the Katie Featherston character from PA1.

Chilling, isn’t it?!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 34/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 29/100

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rum Diary


This movie cost $45,000,000 to make.

Which is unforgivable.

It is a vanity project made at the behest of a movie star who has generated billions of dollars by making movies that are the exact opposite of The Rum Diary.

So why plug forty-five mil into a movie with an artsy title, an obscure source – at least among mainstream moviegoers -- and a nearly non-existent story?

Heck if I know. But someone got left holding the bag for their lack of judgment. (Editor’s note: It’s probably Graham King, the billionaire financier whose GK films produced the movie.) And it’s not Johnny Depp. His was an upfront payment.

The Rum Diary pulled in a measly five million dollars at the box office its opening weekend by following the wacky exploits of a low-level journalist in the 1950’s who moves to Puerto Rico to work for the newspaper there, and drinks a lot.


In one sense, there is a lot more to The Rum Diary than that.

There’s Aaron Eckhardt as a shady businessman who involves Depp in a plot to publicize a land development deal underwritten by corrupt politicians.

There’s Amber Heard, Eckhardt’s unbelievably beautiful girlfriend, who flirts with Depp, dances her way into danger with the locals, and then vanishes to start her life over again in New York City.

There’s Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as Depp’s eccentric colleagues who help in the effort to publish a dramatic final edition of the failed newspaper by winning a series of cockfights, consulting a voodoo practitioner and enlisting the help of a group of disgruntled proto-Occupy Wall Street types.

Yep, there sure is a lot going on in The Rum Diary.

But in another sense, absolutely nothing happens in The Rum Diary, since none of these characters, subplots or sidebars go anywhere at all.

That land deal? It comes off just fine, but without Depp’s participation, since he flakes out, as much from laziness and drunkenness as any moral objection.

The relationship with Heard? Transitory and pointless. Neither character is changed in the slightest by their interaction. She would have gone off to New York with or without his influence, and he would have sat around drinking with or without hers. (It’s interesting how Depp has never shown romantic chemistry with a female lead, even if he’s working with the sexiest actress in the world, like he was with Jolie in The Tourist. Depp has an almost entirely asexual onscreen presence. I think it drains a lot of tension out of his performances.)

And that final edition of the failed newspaper? It never gets printed. It seems the bad guys took the sensible precaution of removing vital pieces of the printing presses when they closed down the paper. So that’s the end of that.

Overall, The Rum Diary suffers badly from the fact that it derives from a work of non-fiction. After all, the non-fictional world we inhabit tends to play out in meaningless, anti-climactic ways. In that sense, there is honesty and accuracy in The Rum Diary, but little drama and less revelation. It’s just a bunch of slightly odd stuff that happens.

No Country for Old Men featured a similarly anti-climactic finale, but that deviation from standard screenwriting practice was, in my opinion, a dramatic masterstroke. No Country built so relentlessly toward the inevitable showdown between Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin that, when it didn’t happen, it left us reeling. For days I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Josh Brolin’s character died off-screen, and at the hands of someone other than Javier Bardem. And that’s what an artist can do: make you think, and struggle, and shake your head as you try to comprehend the world through the prism of a film.

By contrast, the lack of a satisfying resolution in The Rum Diary left me mildly annoyed. The whole movie rambled to no effect, so I wasn’t much surprised when it ended that way too.

The book version of The Rum Diary is presumably a worthwhile read because of the strength of Hunter S. Thompson’s prose. But of course, prose does not appear in a movie unless the voice-over technique is mercilessly abused, so I remain confused as to why this film was ever made at all.

Beyond the fact that Johnny Depp wanted it to be made.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 27/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 18/100

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Thing

All these remakes are starting to freak me out.

I know I'm behind the curve here. Everyone with a shred of artistic integrity, intellectual pretension or simple iconoclasm has long since decried Hollywood for its shocking lack of originality, which has felt more pervasive every year since the major studios bought up the independent prodco's in the late nineties and then dismantled them.

But I never liked being part of the crowd ripping on Hollywood. It seemed too easy, too self-congratulatory.

On top of that, storytellers have ALWAYS ripped off their predecessors.

Shakespeare wrote only a handful of original plays in his life. The rest were all adaptations of other authors' work. They were remakes.

Just as evolution proceeds by repurposing existing genetic materials, so too storytelling proceeds by telling old stories in new ways.

And maybe that's what Hollywood was doing when it began this era of sequels, prequels and movies about board games.

But now we're not even telling old stories in new ways. We're telling old stories in old ways.

By way of evidence, I give you The Thing, a remake of John Carpenter's classic 1982 movie, which was itself a remake of a 1951 flick.

When Carpenter made his remake, he did something so obvious no one even gave it a second thought. He took the original story, set in 1951, and transposed it to the year 1982. Makes sense, right? The update allows the story to employ modern characters from modern society to explore an old plot in a -- that's right -- modern way. It freshens up the story.

So now we've got a remake of Carpenter's 1982 flick, only it's 2011 now.

Guess what year the 2011 flick takes place?

If you're really cynical about Hollywood, you'd say 1982. And you'd be right.

Isn't that awful?

Isn't that an abdication of the basic artistic responsibility to do something new with the material you're adapting?

And hey, I get the fact that the story intends to portray events that were suggested in the Carpenter movie but never shown -- namely, the fate of the Norwegian research base found destroyed by Kurt Russell's helicopter pilot McCready early in the 1982 film.

Couple problems with this:

One, the two main characters -- the fetching Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the fetching Joel Edgerton -- are both Americans. Pretty quickly, then, the movie feels less like an adjunct to the Carpenter film and more like a straight remake.


Two, the 1982 movie itself answers the question of what happened to the Norwegian research base. The dead Norwegians are only a mystery until Americans start turning up dead too, and then we sort of know what happened.

So if there's no good justification for setting the 2011 movie in 1982, why did the studio do it?

Because it makes the storytelling a lot easier, and a lot less risky.

The 1982 story worked in 1982, and is still popular today, so let's just re-gloss it and see if people will pay money to see it again.

And I did. I paid money.

I'm sort of a movie junkie, so I don't feel I had much choice.

But you can be free. You can still have a normal life.

If you love the Carpenter film, rent it.

If, on the other hand, you're a hopeless victim of the Hollywood marketing machine, then at least you're going to find some kernels of enjoyment in this -- ahem! -- modern version of The Thing.
You're going to enjoy Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Those big wet eyes, that nerdy gracefulness, that nice deep voice that lets you take her a little seriously as a scientist.

She's great. And you're going to enjoy her.

You're also going to enjoy the second act of the movie. The first act is unbelievably wooden and sterile, the third act is incredibly implausible and contrived -- it takes place on board an alien spaceship, which has never yet worked on screen -- but that second act -- which captures the cool central idea of The Thing storyline -- antarctic scientists trapped in a storm trying to figure out who among them is human and who is a murderous alien -- works pretty well.

You're going to be surprised by how much you enjoy scenes that are flagrant reproductions of iconic scenes from 1982 -- from the "test" to determine who is alien; in the Carpenter film, blood samples were heated with an electric coil; in this one, a flashlight is directed into the mouth to look for metal fillings -- to the frantic anxiety over a flamethrower that sputters at the absolute worst time. You're going to say "Sheesh, this is almost a scene-by-scene refilming of Carpenter." But you're still going to enjoy it a little.

Which goes to show just how good those 1982 scenes were.

Overall, you're going to have an okay time watching 2011's The Thing.

But if you have any conscience at all, you'll feel bad about yourself afterward.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 22/100

How Accomplished It Would Be if the Carpenter film did not exist: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 66/100

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Ides of March

Everyone's annoyed with politics.

All the time.

You can look up the writings of people who lived thousands of years ago and read a familiar complaint: namely, that all politicians are phonies who will sell their souls -- and yours too -- to get elected.

Because of this, it's dicey to make a political drama whose central thematic twist is the explosive claim that politicians are not to be trusted.

We already know.

Having said that, it's surprising how much fun The Ides of March is, despite the fact that, thematically, it is the least provocative movie since Transformers 3.

In the movie, based on a stage play -- aha, the story has had time to go through multiple revisions; a good sign! -- George Clooney plays Mike Morris, a handsome, charismatic presidential candidate (you're not going to believe this, but Clooney plays a Democrat) undergoing a closely contested primary battle.

The story joins Clooney in Ohio, a state he needs to win the nomination. His handlers are Phillip Seymour Hoffman and 2011's hunk of choice, Ryan Gosling.



Hoffman's a good guy. Experienced, self-deprecating, calm. Gosling's a good guy too. Young, smart, cool. And boy is Clooney ever a good guy. He is the Real Thing, an idealistic politician who seems to really believe in his ideals, who seems committed to actually changing the world for the better.

The movie's first act is a fun, fast-paced look inside the fictional campaign. The dialogue is sharp and the action convincing, so much so it almost feels like one of the better non-fiction books about campaigns, like 2010's outstanding Game Change.

Then a sexy twenty year-old campaign intern -- uh oh! -- played by Rachel Evan Wood is added to the mix, and all those fine ideals go straight to hell. God damn it.

Our first act ends when Gosling and Wood end up in her hotel room. She sort of seduces him and he sort of seduces her. They're both unattached, so it's a mostly innocent secret campaign fling. At least it is until Gosling accidentally picks up Wood's ringing phone at two in the morning and discovers, on the other end of the line...

...our boy George Clooney.

Oops.

It turns out, idealistic -- and married -- Clooney had a one-night stand with Wood at the start of the campaign. Even worse, she is now pregnant with his movie-star spawn.

Now events are in motion that could very well derail the campaign of crusading Clooney, end the career of hopeful Gosling and despoil the reputation of young Wood.

Among the dangerous players who could exploit this situation are Marisa Tomei, as a reporter, and Paul Giamatti, as the opposing campaign manager, but the real danger lies within. Under the pressure to win, Hoffman and Gosling soon turn on each other, then Clooney turns on Gosling, then Gosling goes rogue, then Wood starts throwing back sleeping pills...

And it all gets ugly fast.

Almost too fast. I never really bought Gosling's transformation into a jaded villain. Incidentally, this is the hardest thing to pull off in drama. It's what made The Godfather a classic, and it's what makes Breaking Bad the most respected show on television. But it's hard, hard writin' to pull off.

What we've got with The Ides of March is a good movie, but because it's more concerned with politics than humanity, it really had no chance of becoming a great movie.

It's entertaining, it's interesting, it's well-acted, -shot and -edited. It just doesn't doesn't mean a hell of a lot.

Kinda like politics itself.

Whoa. Maybe this movie's deeper than I thought.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 74/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Monday, October 24, 2011

Drive

This is an arthouse movie. Which is strange.

Because, at first glance, it sure doesn't look like an arthouse movie.

The story follows a stunt driver, played by Ryan Gosling, who moonlights as a getaway driver. He falls in love with his neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan, and gets in trouble with a pair of mobsters, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.

It's full of car chases and macho showdowns, shootings and stabbings.

Sounds like a Hollywood actioner, right?



Wrooooong.

Because it's also full of long, long, long stretches of dialogue-free, action-free staring on the part of Gosling.

Sometimes Gosling is staring at Mulligan. Sometimes he's staring at the sidewalk. Sometimes he's staring at a pretty bird flying by.

Gosling's the star of the movie, but he only has about twelve lines of dialogue over the space of two hours.

That's because the focus of the movie is not on dialogue, or action, or romance, or character, or even the plot I've described. These things all exist, but only to serve the sweeping, languorous camera shots that comprise the heart of the film.

It's really a photo essay masquerading as a movie.

Realism is out the window. Early on, Gosling goes all Jason Bourne in an elevator, defeating a trained killer in hand-to-hand combat, but at the end of the movie, he suffers a fatal draw in a short-lived knife fight with Albert Brooks. Albert Brooks!

Fantasy is also out the window. The first scene of the movie masterfully establishes Gosling's expertise as a getaway driver. No one, but no one, can drive a car better than him. Typical Hollywood convention demands that Gosling's driving skills therefore be put to the test in the final act of the movie.

But it doesn't happen. Gosling hardly drives at all in the last half hour of a movie called "Drive."

The audience I saw the movie with was decidely unhappy with what they were watching. The reason is that "Drive" was marketed as mainstream entertainment, when in fact it deserved a quiet eighty-screen release at the nation's haughtiest art cinemas.

There's virtue in knowing what kind of movie you are, and "Drive" certainly knows it's an esoteric arthouse flick, despite its deceptive marketing campaign, but there's still greater virtue in bringing together disparate elements like popular appeal and moral profundity.

Once upon a time, Steven Spielberg made such movies. "Jaws" is about getting eaten by a fish. But it's about a lot more too. Just what was it in New York that Chief Brody was running away from, after all?

Nowadays Spielberg picks one side of the divide or the other, just like everyone else. He's making "Jurassic Park IV" next, then he's making an Abraham Lincoln biopic. The first will be sheer nonsense, but possibly fun nonsense, and the other will be sheer drudgery, though possibly thoughtful drudgery.

No one combines the ambitious and the fun anymore. And that's a shame. Because it's where masterpieces come from.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 38/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 25/100

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Moneyball

Here's an insight that's gotten a lot of currency over the past ten years, but is nevertheless hard for many to accept:

No one who ever lived has been significantly smarter than anyone else who ever lived.

You could call it the "no geniuses" theory, and boy do people struggle with it.

What about Plato? What about Newton? What about Steve frickin' Jobs?

Not all that smart, the theory says.

I know. Hard, right?

The thinking goes like this (I'm going to get to Moneyball in a sec; promise): critical leaps forward in human thought do not occur because certain individuals are born with superior brainpower. They occur because circumstances line up in particular ways at particular times to give perfectly placed individuals a rare vantage point on an important truth -- a truth that will forever change the way the rest of us look at a subject.

Enter Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's and the focus of Moneyball, and his particular set of circumstances.

Beane's Oakland A's are engaged in a losing battle. They don't have the same amount of money as do the behemoths of their sport, so they consistently lose their best players to those deep-pocketed rivals.

Or do they?

The way Beane turned around Oakland's fortunes in the 1990's was to reconsider the definition of the term "best players." He did it with the help of a young Yale grad played by Jonah Hill (a composite character), who was part of a growing movement among stat-nerds who believed traditional baseball statistics were incomplete at best and downright misleading at worst.

By the end of Moneyball's first act, Beane -- played by Brad Pitt -- and Hill are making player moves considered ridiculous by everyone outside -- and inside! -- the A's organization. They start acquiring players who draw a lot of walks (!) and who are positively inept in the field.


As in all sports movies, the structure of the story derives from the arc of the sporting season. The A's start the season poorly, which calls into question Pitt and Hill's radical philosophy. Then, lo and behold, the A's start winning.

Then they start winning a lot.

At one point they win twenty straight games, which provides the movie its climax -- since the A's went out in the first round of the playoffs that year.

So that's the intellectual side of Moneyball, and it's interesting. It kept me engaged. But of course, if there's no emotional aspect to the story we're going to be stuck with another Social Network.

So how does Moneyball work emotionally?

Surprisingly well. The plot of the movie organizes the entire fictional universe against sexy Pitt and nerdy Hill, giving us the all-important unity-of-opposites central relationship.

There are side relationships along the way, namely with Pitt's ex-wife and daughter, and while they make for some effective scenes, they belong to a different movie. We would have been better served if the movie had stayed entirely in the baseball clubhouse.

If the movie fails to reach its potential, it's because the relationship between Pitt and Hill doesn't get the full attention it deserves -- and the full attention it is structurally set up to receive. Pitt's final decision, whether to accept an offer to work for the Boston Red Sox and leave Oakland, plays out as a struggle between the value Pitt places on his baseball work and the value he places on his relationship with his daughter.

The absence of any question about whether he would miss Jonah Hill reveals that the strength of the movie, the Pitt/Hill relationship, isn't so strong that it permeates every aspect of the story. Which is too bad.

Because as intriguing as advanced sabremetrics and "no genius" theories are, every great story is about two people who are in love with each other.

And I think Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill only really like each other.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 75/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100

Friday, September 30, 2011

Contagion

It's the most common complaint people make about movies.

"Why couldn't it have been more realistic?"

Well, you sorry bastards, you've finally gotten your wish. You've gotten all the realism that could possibly be crammed into a 102 minute film.

I hope you're happy.


That's Gwyneth Paltrow, playing the first victim of a pandemic that shoots around the globe in Steven Soderbergh's new medical thriller.

It's a brave performance. It must have gone against the grain of every movie star instinct for Paltrow to allow herself to be portrayed, albeit briefly, as a sick, vulnerable, vomiting woman of questionable moral fiber, and then finally as a slab of meat on an autopsy table.

But she did it. And she wasn't alone. Contagion boasts a cast of all-stars, and they each seem willing to play real human beings caught in very plausible situations. From Matt Damon's luckily immune father desperate to protect a not-so-immune daughter; to Jude Law's opportunistic video blogger peddling a fake cure; to Kate Winslet's energetic front-line CDC researcher who gets infected while trying to rescue others.

There are even subplots that have no bearing on the plot -- just like in real life! One such is Marion Cotillard's strange abduction by Hong Kong medical colleagues who want to ransom her for early doses of the cure.

That cure, incidentally, is discovered by Jennifer Ehle, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Meryl Streep -- I figured she was Streep's daughter till I looked her up -- and only differs from Streep in one way I can determine. Unlike Streep, Jennifer Ehle can't act.


Not on film, anyway. She's won a pair of Tony awards, and that's the source of her problem. She hams up every line of dialogue and overplays every facial expression like she's still on the stage. She has a lot of scenes with Laurence Fishburne, and his relaxed, natural delivery makes Ehle's performance seem doubly-forced.

Hers is the only weak performance of the film. Overall, I never disbelieved what I was seeing on screen. It all felt real.

But that doesn't mean I liked it.

Okay, maybe I did like it, but that doesn't mean I loved it. And it doesn't mean my pulse rate ever got above eighty beats a minute.

Contagion is a smart movie that concerns itself with intellectual themes. It explores ethics, not morals. It considers society, not individuals. It deals in issues, not truths.

Ultimately, the movie is about a very bad virus, like SARS or the bird flu, that got out of hand, killed many millions of people, then got cured and life went on like normal.

And... well...

...that's fine.

But this is a movie, isn't it? I paid fourteen dollars to see this, didn't I? Can't I expect more from a movie than a level-headed look at how society might plausibly endure a major health crisis? Can't I expect larger-than-life heroes and villains? Can't I expect absurdly dramatic events I will never experience within the cruelly narrow confines of reality? Can't I expect more?

Well, that's the big question. And the way I see it: realism gives, and realism takes away.

What you gain with realism is superficial credibility. What you lose, potentially, is a stirring metaphor that can invoke deep emotional responses and make us look at the world through a different emotional lens for the rest of our lives.

The Godfather is about the mob, sort of. Really it's about families. And it doesn't have anything to say about families except that the ties that unite us can also strangle us. Is this profound? Is this original? Not really. But oh how deeply the movie feels this observation. And through the movie, we feel the observation with equal power.

By contrast, Contagion has no underlying emotional life. It's a movie about a pandemic that is really a movie about... a pandemic.

So there you go.

You got your realism at long last.

And I can already hear your reaction:

Why couldn't it have been more exciting?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 74/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Help

I would not see this movie in a million years.

Why? Because its marketing campaign did a great job.

It showed exactly what kind of movie The Help is: it's the dreaded historical Message Movie.

Present are all the tropes of that abhorrent genre: the noble and downtrodden black woman, the spunky white protagonist whose virtue lies in extraordinary empathy (and a downright suspicious sense of where history is going), and of course the gallery of sneering villains and villainesses just waiting to be exposed for the shallow-hearted snobs they are.

It's the kind of movie where characters say "Pshaw!" a lot more than seems conversationally plausible.

But I saw the movie anyway, because it was number one at the box office an astonishing four weeks in a row. This is the movie that dominated the month of August.

It follows the inhabitants of the town of Jackson, Mississippi, around the time of Medgar Evers' assassination.

Prodigal daughter Emma Stone returns to Jackson, after a few years spent in New York, to discover her old stomping grounds unacceptably racist. Tellingly, the movie never explores any possible racist feelings or actions in Emma Stone's own childhood. Instead, flashbacks reveal a young "Skeeter" -- yeah, her name's Skeeter; I don't know what to tell you -- who was extremely kind to, and well-loved by, her own black family maid. The decision not to reveal any defects in the protagonist's own character, or any guilt on her part, is an act of authorial condescension that permeates the entire ridiculously judgmental and simple-minded film.

Not only is Skeeter without the slightest hint of blame, neither are Viola Davis' pillar-of-the-housemaid-community, Abilene, or fellow maid Minny, or anyone else whose skin color is black. But if you're white and your name isn't Skeeter, God help you, you awful bastard.

It's largely because of this "easy choices" plot -- should I root for the racists or the non-racists? -- that the acting performances are unavoidably phony. Viola Davis is phony as Abilene, Emma Stone is phony as anyone not born in the late 1980's, and most dreadfully of all, Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I love, is the phoniest of all phonies as frosty socialite and anti-civil rights crusader Hilly Holbrook.

Hilly wants to befriend the newly-returned Skeeter, so she tries to recruit her to the local chapter of Smug Jerks Against Civil Rights.

Skeeter wants to fit in with the local high society, so she does not spurn Hilly outright. Instead she secretly works on a scathing expose of southern racism by conducting covert interviews with Abilene, Minny and eventually all the black maids in Jackson.

The book goes on to become a runaway bestseller -- which is odd because it plays out like the book takes two weeks to write, one week to publish and a fourth week to become the talk of the whole country. The plot rests on these developments, so their inauthenticity -- both the ease of publication and the speed of it -- is jarring.

But then again, the wretched Help, the novel on which the movie is based, got published, became a best seller, and even got made into a terrible movie!

So I guess anything is possible.

Obviously I didn't respond well to this flick, but lots of people did. The movie has racked up a hundred and fifty million dollars so far. Obviously someone out there likes it.

And I can't fault them. The Help is a bad movie, but it's really not as bad as I'm making it out to be. It's just that I personally prefer my trashy movies to come right out and embrace their trashiness. If their plots revolve around spaceships found mysteriously adrift, or a pair of cops who are complete opposites but discover a mutual respect when they are both framed by a common enemy, so much the frickin' better.

But that's just me.

If self-important melodramas about beautiful social outsiders undoing hundreds of years of prejudice and humbling little miss perfect Hilly Holbrook by scribbling a bestseller on college-ruled notebooks are your cup of tea, then you'll probably enjoy The Help.

Your tastes could not possibly be more different from mine.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 43/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 04/100