Thursday, June 30, 2011

Green Lantern

A fellow named Michael Hauge once wrote a good book about screenwriting.

In it, he offered the notion that most successful movies contain something called a "second level of sell." What he meant was, there is usually a cool idea BENEATH the cool idea on which the movie is marketed.

Take the movie Amadeus. The first level of sell is that it's a movie about the murder of the world's most talented musician. Sounds pretty good, right? Are you ready for the second level of sell?

It's this:

The murderer is our main character. He's a mediocrity who is jealous of Mozart, and he is our main character, our protagonist. And do you know why?

Because you are a mediocrity.

As am I. We all are.

So we identify with Saliere, the murderer, more than we ever could the greatest composer ever.

This involves us in the story. It sucks us in, and we hang on the outcome.

Second level of sell.

Very, very smart.

And with that, we take a plunging step from the sublime to the moronic.

Green Lantern, and the comic from which it hails, barely contain a single level of sell.

The movie/comic is about a hotshot test pilot -- Jesus, I hate it already -- who gets handed a power ring by a dying alien which gives him almost unlimited power.

But it's kiddie power. The ring enables the wearer to create shapes out of anything he can imagine. So if he wants to hit someone really hard, he conjures a gigantic fist which smacks his opponent, cartoon-style.

If he wants to defeat Fly-Man (patent pending), he conjures a giant flyswatter with the ring and swats away.

Now, it's hard to fault the creators who birthed this idea in the late fifties for doing exactly what they were trying to do: concoct a character who could be enjoyed by pre-adolescent boys with limitless power fantasies.

But geez, the character just wouldn't die, and now we're stuck with a four hundred million dollar movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, and the concept hasn't been improved a jot.

And it's glaringly obvious that underneath the big idea -- power ring! -- is a yawning chasm of emptiness. There's nothing else going on in this story. There's no second level of sell.

Reynolds' Hal Jordan is a sexy, popular dude with lots of money who flirts with a sexy, popular gal with lots of money. He has a personal problem, of course. He's scared of intimacy, so instead of settling down with Lively, he cavorts with a changing roster of supermodels.

Poor guy. If anyone needs an alien power ring, it's him, right?

Along with the ring, he inherits an enemy named Parallax who has more might than every power ring in the universe combined -- there are lots of them -- yet gets destroyed in the end -- spoiler alert -- by getting pushed into Earth's sun.

This is a big problem, but it's just emblematic of a million loose threads and logical inconsistencies that reveal a lack of gravitational attraction at the center of the story. That unifying force has to come from the core concept, and a second level of sell can take that concept from good to great.

And the lack thereof can send a story from bad to Green Lantern.

One post-script: this movie provides another entry in the growing body of evidence that amorphous clouds make ineffective antagonists.

The movie's diabolical Parallax is a big space cloud, reminiscent of V'Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Galactus in Fantastic Four 2, or even the big flying ball of evil in The Fifth Element.

Good antagonists are people. If they're clouds, maybe you haven't figured out your antagonist yet.

It's just a theory.


How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 25/100

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Tree of Life

What jumps out about The Tree of Life is how astonishingly beautiful it is.

Every shot in the long film could hang in a museum.

I haven't seen a series of pictures as lovingly committed to celluloid since Terrence Malick's previous film, The New World, and I suspect I won't see another as gorgeous until his next one.

The reason for this is that Malick labors over his films -- it seems a shame to call them movies -- in a way no one has done since Kubrick.

Now, he doesn't labor over his scripts -- we'll get to that. What he labors over is the visual presentation. His efforts are so excruciating he has made only five films in forty years and, like The Tree of Life, every one is a masterpiece of evocative imagery.

The current film opens with one of the most mesmerizing tours of cosmic history I've ever seen. We zoom past Saturnian rings, startle at fateful celestial impacts, and even peep a few dinosaurs traipsing through a Jurassic habitat.

Malick's work is a shocking reminder of how easy it is to fall into visual cliche. It isn't until you see someone like Malick approach his material with an utterly fresh perspective that you realize how tired and boring are all our Science Channel documentaries, which cover the same territory the same way it's been covered a million times, using the same stock footage and the same computer-model renderings.

By contrast, Malick's images feel at once brand new and achingly familiar. We're looking at our home, as we've never seen it.

And it's just magnificent.

Okay, now to the... um, story.

Spoiler alert -- there is no story. Not really. Not unless there's a story in your average person's life itself.

The average person in question is young kid Jack, eldest of three brothers who live in the suburban Midwest of the 1950's with parents Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain.

Pitt is an archetypal difficult dad: tyrannical yet distant, loving but pushing, always judging and never quite satisfied with his progeny. Chastain is his opposite number: gentle, kind and unconditionally giving.

Caught between them is Jack, trying to make sense of the world around him, of right and wrong, of happiness and misery.

Premier Hollywood script guru Blake Snyder would call this a "rite of passage" movie, and he'd be right. But most such movies organize their stories around a specific event of some kind. In the superb Ordinary People it was young Timothy Hutton's struggle to discover the secret of why his mother was treating him so coldly.

When we learn that secret, the entire movie comes into focus. Everything that happens is really about that one thing, and that's what makes OP a coherent story.

Malick disdains such convention. He doesn't want to tell a story about life. He just wants to show life. Whatever conclusions we draw are pretty much up to us.

This makes his films a lot like modern art; an unguided tour of the human experience. A rejection of insight and reason, an embrace of sensuous nihilism.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I enjoyed The Tree of Life, but the film is a test of patience. You have to suspend your sense of narrative anticipation. There aren't going to be set-ups and payoffs. There aren't going to be resolutions or catharses -- there's just life, snaking along all its tendrils and leafy fronds.

It's a different kind of film than we're used to seeing. It does not think deeply, but it feels deeply. And mostly what it feels is a sense of overwhelming beauty.

In many ways, The Tree of Life is the perfect reflection of its star, Brad Pitt. It may not have much going on between its ears...

...but damn if it doesn't look good.


How Accomplished -- Visual Department: 96/100

How Accomplished -- Story Department: 42/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 73/100

Friday, June 17, 2011

Super 8

Steven Spielberg sucks.

There. I said it.

I can now proceed directly to hell.

The thing is, though, he sort of does suck, if you restrict your analysis to the previous seventeen years.

Jurassic Park 2, Amistad, the atrocious Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. This is a Hall of Shame list of bad movies.

There are all kinds of caveats here, so let's acknowledge the first: "Seventeen years? Oh, you mean since his miracle year of 1993, when he directed the number one box office hit of the year with Jurassic Park and also won every Oscar with his masterpiece Schindler's List?"

Um... yes, that's right.

Spielberg's my favorite director of all time. (I know, it's a bold choice.) But his unprecedented, unrivalled and unequalled run from 1975 to 1989 -- from Jaws to the third Indiana Jones movie -- was so good it burned the concept "Steven Spielberg is a genius" into the very core of our psyches. It burned it there so intensely the premise would prove almost impossible to reconsider for the rest of the man's lifetime, no matter how much useless dreck said lifetime resulted in.

Same thing happened with Einstein.

In Einstein's case, the result was a Grand Unified Theory which Einstein never did discover, and which probably does not exist.

In Spielberg's case, the result is Super 8.

Super 8 is not of course directed by Spielberg -- it is directed by devotee JJ Abrams, doing a spot-on imitation of Spielberg behind the camera -- but it is executive produced by him, and it's hard to imagine another movie where the executive producer is more present in the finished product.

The movie tracks a group of kids who spend their spare time making earnest but cheesy films using an eight-millimeter camera, as Spielberg famously did and JJ Abrams famously claims to have done.

It is set in 1979, a timeframe which does little for the movie beyond preserving the title: 1979 is just about the last year someone could plausibly use a super 8 camera.

The kids are using that camera when a train derails around them. (Don't ask. The laws of physics go out the window throughout the whole sequence, and indeed, throughout the movie.)

But this is no ordinary train. It's a military train with a top secret cargo which escapes during the derailment.

In the biggest non-surprise in marketing history, the secret cargo is an alien creature that proceeds to sort of terrorize the small town where the kids live.

"Sort of" is the key phrase here.

The movie tries to have its monster both ways. It attacks people seemingly at random -- though secretly for plot reasons; it kidnaps the sheriff, which puts the main character's dad in charge of the town police; it kidnaps love interest Elle Fanning so our bland protagonist has to go rescue her -- but at the same time the movie tries to play up sympathy for the monster. It has been abused by military scientists, you see, and it only really wants to go home, E.T.-style.

Except that E.T. didn't have huge, slavering mandibles, nor did E.T. string victims upside-down in his cavernous lair.

At least I don't think he did.

Every aspect of "Super 8" is indulgent and sloppy, from its refusal to commit to a genre (is this horror or adventure?) to its multiple plot threads that go nowhere, like the pointless sidebar concerning Elle Fanning's alcoholic father.

I'd say we could use a bunch more drafts of the script, but I'm not sure the basic premise is worth investing time on. Everything feels done-before, which in a way is the point of the movie.

It's a stroll down memory lane for Spielberg, and a "movie camp" fantasy for Abrams -- "you get to remake The Goonies with Steven Spielberg himself!"

Abrams took full advantage of the opportunity, totally disappearing into his Spielberg impersonation.

He's even wearing Spielberg's glasses...

No matter who directed it, Super 8 is most definitely a Steven Spielberg movie. And it's 2011, not 1981, so that it means it's really, really bad.

The truth is, Steven Spielberg is not a genius. He's just a competent film director who made movies with a bunch of crazy good screenplays for fifteen or twenty years, then made movies with a bunch of crazy bad screenplays for the next fifteen or twenty years. He didn't change, the screenplays did. And it's not his fault. It's just the way of the world. How many brilliant screenplays are out there, anyway?

Spielberg is not an idiot, nor is he a genius.

He's just a guy currently in talks to make Jurassic Park 4.


How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 21/100

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Prequels have a dubious history.

The earliest high-profile prequel was 1974's The Godfather Part II, a movie which only I seem to understand is pretty awful. The De Niro segments in early-century Italy are the worst parts.

The next big prequel was 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the atrocious second entry of the Indy saga. Happily I am not alone in hating this flick.

But the prequels that really fried brains were the Star Wars ones. They gave us Jar Jar Binks, Jango Fett and a Darth Vader who was a scowling teenager and, apparently, a bad actor.

The greatest storyteller of all pegged the problem with prequels:

"Part of the attraction of the L.R.," Tolkien wrote, "is due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic."

(Yes, Tolkien wrote that beautifully even when jotting off quick notes to fans.)

Nonetheless we've got X-Men: First Class on our hands, a prequel to the outstanding "X-Men" movie trilogy.

In FC, a young Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, AKA Professor X and Magneto, find themselves enrolled in a government program where they are instructed to advance American interests by gathering more mutants like themselves, and helping them develop their various powers.

None too soon either, because bad guy mutant Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, is plotting the Cuban Missile Crisis with his paramour Emma Frost, played with Keanu-like stiffness by January Jones, along with a couple other evil-looking muties who don't have lines.

Shaw's plan is to provoke World War Three, whose radioactive aftermath will presumably generate even more mutants. Why Shaw thinks this will happen is a mystery -- the current crop of mutants are not the result of radioactive waste. And why he would want this -- wouldn't he be less powerful in a world where his powers are ordinary rather than unique? -- is equally perplexing.

But he's a bad guy. And he wants to blow up the world. That's just going to have to suffice.

Enter the first class of what will eventually be called the X-Men.

They consist of a bland teenager called Havoc, a bland teenager called Angel, a bland teenager called Darwin... uh oh! A pattern's developing.

They also consist of Beast, played by Nicholas Hoult of About a Boy. Just thinking of About a Boy provided me minutes of enjoyment.

What didn't provide enjoyment was the sight of Beast in all his blue-furred, ridiculous glory. He looked like the kind of animatronic dummy that freaks out seven year-olds at places like Chuck E Cheese's. I think it's safe to say computer graphics aren't up to the challenge of Beast yet.

Rounding out the team is Mystique, played by flavor-of-the-month Jennifer Lawrence. Her makeup and effects are fine, but tragically, the girl can't seem to act. She delivers lines as if she's reading the bottom line of letters during an eye test. As soon as someone tells her it's okay to reveal emotion WHILE acting, she oughta be fine.

Mystique's in love with Charles Xavier because he's the only one who ever accepted her mutant nature, but she soon falls in love with Beast because he's kind of cute in a nerdy way. She then makes a play for Magneto because he's even more accepting of her than Xavier is. Yeah, this is all kind of confusing for me too.

Meanwhile, Moira McTaggert, a federal agent, also sort of falls for Charles Xavier...

And here's the movie's big problem.

There's too much going on. There's love quadrangles and pentangles, there's multiple groups of villains with shifting alliances, there's armies and navies, there's powerpoint presentations (or their sixties equivalents), there's just a lot of stuff thrown against the wall. Some sticks. Some doesn't. But this is the feeling that should come from a middle draft of a script in progress, not a supposedly finished movie.

In a finished movie, everything should hang together. Every subplot should reflect the main plot. Every character's core dilemma should be a different way of looking at the same problem. There should be a central idea at work.

In X-Men: First Class, that idea doesn't exist.

There are way more good scenes than bad scenes, but taken together, the good scenes don't mean anything. It's just a superpowered showcase, with a theoretically bombastic but emotionally empty action climax that takes place on a beach in Cuba and has too many moving parts.

In truth, there's no such thing as an ensemble. Every movie has to have a main character. Otherwise it's not a personal journey. It's just a bunch of stuff that happens more or less simultaneously.

And that's how I'd describe X-Men: First Class. A movie with no roots in a fictional past, only trace amounts of plausibility and clarity, hit-and-miss in terms of casting, acting and special effects, and, ultimately, no real understanding of what the hell it's about.

Let's have a moratorium on prequels.

If Tolkien thought they were a bad idea, they're a bad idea.


How Accomplished: 32/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 31/100