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