Sunday, July 31, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Let's get something straight:

Characters are not people.

They can't be. People are too random, too incomprehensible, too messy, too contradictory, too irrational.

Most distressingly, your average person is a living symbol of utterly nothing.

And that's the opposite of what a character must be.

Whether we like to admit it or not -- and this depends on our level of comfort with the permeable, diaphanous, wholly mysterious membrane we call the suspension of disbelief -- a character must represent something.

Even if we don't know exactly what that something is, everyone can feel when a character takes on a mythic dimension. When they stop being that person on the screen, and they become, instead, the embodiment of a primal quality. That's when their stories have something to offer.

Forget about stories being "about" something. Characters themselves have to be about something.

Which brings us to our old friend, Captain America.

What does Cap represent?

Can't say "America," it's too easy, and too abstract. After all, what does America represent?

In the context of the Captain America comics, I'll venture that America -- and by extension, the Captain -- represents victory.

Captain America always wins. Period.

Think how this sets him apart from other superheroes. Peter Parker's life is a mess, Superman runs into kryptonite every damn way he turns, the X-Men are fighting prejudices and fears they will never wholly overcome, Iron Man can't beat alcoholism and the Hulk wishes above all that he weren't the Hulk.

For all their powers, superheroes lose their battles just as often as they win.

That's where Cap's different. He always wins.

And that's America.

Okay, Vietnam was a defeat, and the Korean War can only really be called a draw, but this misses the larger point. Which is: in the history of civilization, there have been two empires whose massive successes have dwarfed all others. One is the ancient Roman Empire. The other is the United States.

And Rome fell.

America hasn't yet, and despite its problems lifting the debt ceiling, it is currently impossible for a reasonable person to foresee America's fall. It's hundreds of years in the future.

Which means, as of right now, America is the most successful example of a group of people uniting under a common banner. Ever.

More than democracy, human rights, capitalism, or anything else, America symbolizes winning.

And that's why Cap always wins.

Enter Captain America, the movie.

There are a host of problems in Captain America -- there's not a single good line of dialogue, there's not a single original action sequence, there's not a single moment of suspense, the diabolical villain's plan is to "target everything," which is murky and stupid, the movie is set during World War II, an arena so well captured by modern stories like HBO's Band of Brothers that it's nearly impossible to convince us we're actually there without going to infinitely greater effort than Captain America seems capable of, the special effects are shaky and the ending, where Captain America pilots an airborne superfortress into the arctic ice to prevent a crash over populated territory is obviously a necessary and therefore obligatory move to get Cap into the present for the upcoming Avengers movie; come on, there wasn't a parachute anywhere on the whole plane?! -- but despite all these problems, the real source of rot at the core of Captain America is the absence of Captain America.

Handsome young actor Chris Evans plays the title role, but the movie is thematically obsessed with the idea that Cap is "just an ordinary kid from Brooklyn," and not special at all, which assigns to Cap humility as his central virtue.

This is patently ridiculous. Captain America has an abundance of good qualities, as does the USA, but humility doesn't exactly rank high on the list.

I don't mean to imply the writers and director of Captain America thematically failed to match my answer, and that's why I'm condemning the movie. I mean to say that the movie was horrible, and my best guess as to why is that they whiffed when trying to capture the character's central theme.

It's either that, or the bad special effects.

But I think it was that.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 26/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 21/100

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

I've been mostly out on the Harry Potter movies.

The first two were slavishly mechanical adaptations. The next two were occasionally interesting failures. So I bailed.

Meanwhile, the series has made thirteen hundred kajillion dollars while burning itself into the brains of an entire generation. And somewhere along the way, something must have changed, because the eighth movie is fast, engaging and fun.

It helps that the movie covers the events of the second half of the final book by Rowling, which is the good half.

It's the half that contains "The Battle of Hogwarts."

A battle is a wonderful thing to center a movie around. It's primal, it's visual, it's decisive, and it lends itself to all manner of metaphorical application. In movies, a battle is always a welcome event.

So it is in HP 7.2, which opens with a sensational image: a long-shot of Hogwarts, School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, surrounded on all sides by floating dementors, faceless wraiths who inspire fear and despair in all who encounter them.

The dementors have been engaged to protect Hogwarts against the growing army of Lord Voldemort, but reliance on dementors is a suspect tactic. Voldemort hasn't even arrived yet, and Hogwarts is already under siege.

This is the grim, tense tone that permeates the movie.

Harry and his chums Ron and Hermione are on the run, both from Voldemort and the lawful authorities. Partly this is because Voldemort has the law in his pocket, but partly it's because our heroes must frequently break the law to obtain the rare artifacts called horcruxes which contain digital duplicates -- or the magical equivalent -- of Voldemort's wicked soul.

Unless the horcruxes are destroyed, it will do no good to defeat Voldemort himself.

This veers perilously close to a common fantasy formula, the "plot coupon" story that revolves around the recovery of a certain number of magic items required to defeat a nefarious adversary. This formula enables an author to churn out hundreds of pages of text -- as well as repeating it through endless books -- without once resorting to something as mundane as an actual story.

(It's also why The Lord of the Rings remains the best fantasy plot ever conceived. There are no plot coupons involved. The hero must simply take the Enemy's greatest weapon and dump it into a volcano in his own backyard, or everything the hero loves will be destroyed. It's ironic, impossible, and still the reigning champion of plots.)

Fortunately, four of the horcruxes have already been gathered up in the previous installment, leaving only three to manage here, which is borderline acceptable. Also, there's the Big Battle.

The battle lasts a meaty hour of screentime, as a good battle should.

In the midst of it, Harry, Ron and Hermione scurry around Hogwarts looking for horcruxes.

The battle is frequently more compelling than the horcrux hunt, as when clumsy underdog Neville Longbottom holds off an army of werewolves with nothing more than a little bravado and a massive magical shield exerted by the castle itself.

The acting is superb throughout, which is no surprise since it's British actors in every part. I've even warmed up to Ralph Fiennes' wheezing portrayal of the noseless Voldemort. He gets a lot of screentime in this final flick, which helps the actor fill out the character.

Overall though I think the bulk of the credit has to go to director David Yates -- the franchise finally found its director, and it only took five movies to do so -- and author JK Rowling, whose story and world-building efforts made the movie fundamentally what it is, with an assist from series screenwriter Steve Kloves, who implements several tweaks to the book that are pretty sensible, overall. Though it did hurt to lose the final scene with Dumbledore's talking portrait, as well as the line that, to me, summed up the entirety of Harry's accumulated wisdom: "Ron, that wand's more trouble than it's worth."

Considering the series as a whole, it's still nothing more than a multimedia expansion pack that does not in any significant way enhance our understanding or enjoyment of the original books.

In this way, it's different than the concurrent Twilight movies, which have been indelibly stamped by their actors. Stewart and Pattinson might not be the next coming of Taylor and Burton, but they were perfectly cast. They now ARE Bella and Edward, whereas Radcliffe, Grint and Watson don't embody Harry, Ron and Hermione as much as they borrow their identities for a time.

We live in a movie culture in which Robert Downey Jr. now plays Sherlock Holmes and Chris Pine plays James Tiberius Kirk. It's easy to imagine a reboot of the Harry Potter movie franchise -- maybe in 2025? -- featuring a different group of twelve year-olds as Harry, Ron and Hermione.

This won't represent a condemnation of the existing film series. It'll reflect the fact that the books are simply too good to be confined to any one set of actors, or any one set of directors.

In a way, the conclusion of the movie series has set the Harry Potter books free.

As Secretary of War Stanton said when closing Abraham Lincoln's eyes for the final time, they belong to the ages now.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 84/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 85/100

Friday, July 22, 2011

Horrible Bosses

In screenwriting circles, this advice is often given:

Before you begin writing, visualize the movie poster. Does it look appealing? Is it commercial? Does it have a good title?

This is meant to steer a writer's efforts into profitable channels. To avoid time-wasting detours. But there's a big problem with the advice.

It plunges the story into the deep waters of commercial acquisition well before it knows how to swim. Ironically it can end up dooming a movie's chances of fulfilling its potential, commercially as well as artistically.

But a quick buck is often made for all concerned, and Hollywood is nothing if not a quick buck industry.

Enter Horrible Bosses, a comedy about three thirty-something guys bedeviled by -- you guessed it -- horrible bosses, whom they plot to murder.

I like the idea. Everyone's had a horrible boss, and everyone's contemplated homicide of said boss. You can kind of already tell the main characters aren't going to go through with the murders, since they are played by likeable actors Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and TV actor Charlie Day.

Opposite them are horrible bosses Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Ferrell.

Playing street tough mentor to the would-be killers is comedian and comedic actor Jamie Foxx.

So you've got your poster. You've got your title. All that's left now is to survey the wreckage of the story.

Let's start with a structure problem. Jamie Foxx's character is only in two scenes. That's barely a cameo. Yet his structural role as mentor to the protagonists suggests he should play a vastly more prominent role in the story.

So why didn't he? My guess is, with three separate protagonists to track, along with three antagonists, there wasn't enough screen time to give Foxx his due. Beyond which, multiple protagonists usually serve as mentors to each other. So technically Foxx probably doesn't belong in the movie at all. And his scenes do feel like they slow the movie down rather than amp it up.

Now let's move to a casting problem. Jennifer Aniston's sexual-harassing dentist makes no sense whatsoever for the obvious reason. No man currently alive would mind being sexually harassed by Jennifer Aniston. The character belongs in the movie Awesome Bosses.

If they had cast a revolting woman in the role, they'd have had something, but since ugly women can't get SAG cards, it was a nonstarter I suppose.

Ugly men are in though. Or at least, really handsome men with prosthetic makeup to look ugly. That's Colin Ferrell who, frankly, is fantastic here, like he is in everything. He's the bulbous-headed nimrod with the heart of coal who tortures Jason Sudeikis by making him choose whom to fire in the office. He too is in only a couple scenes, and not nearly enough humor is mined from his character.

Indeed, the bulk of the movie concerns itself with the antics of our three main characters performing surveillance on their bosses, efforts which quickly turn into cliched slapstick situations. Dropping Colin Ferrell's cocaine bowl on the floor and accidentally inhaling it was the most obvious thing that could have happened when they broke into his house, so of course that's what happens.

Horrible Bosses is a wasted opportunity from the get-go, but where it devolves into true horror is act three, which is a prolonged action sequence between Kevin Spacey and the guys. It's stupid and phony and utterly unfunny, and when the credits finally roll they're a blessing from the gods.

Hurry out of the theater, though, because there's a post-script with nonagenarian Bob Newhart that delivers one final cringe meant to be a joke.

The reason Hollywood's product is almost uniformly better than that of Hong Kong or Bollywood -- Hollywood's two biggest rivals -- is because Hollywood, being much more financially well-heeled, takes a lot longer to make a movie than either of those entities.

But sometimes it still doesn't take long enough.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 28/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 31/100