Monday, December 31, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Boy, I love that title.

It refers, in code, to the planned time of the strike on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abottobad, Pakistan. Half past midnight. Zero dark thirty.

How great is that?

And I love Kathryn Bigelow.

She made the immortal Point Break in 1991, as well as 2008's Best Picture winner, the superb The Hurt Locker. The latter film was a result of her collaboration with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal, with whom she developed an artistic pespective -- work in a political arena, but stay out of politics; focus on the human experience -- and an aesthetic: bleached out colors and an unsentimental attitude.

Now she and Boal have made a movie about the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden.

It's just got to be good.

Ugh.

What befalls Bigelow this year is the same thing that befell Spielberg, and Zemeckis, and practically that whole generation of esteemed film-makers.

She got safe.

Unlike The Hurt Locker, ZDT latches onto the biggest piece of existing intellectual property in the world of modern war.

It then populates that story with wildly recognizable actors. When Hurt Locker came out, Jeremy Renner was an unknown. But Jessica Chastain, the CIA protagonist of ZDT, is hardly unknown. She's the It Girl of the moment.


And she's surrounded by a bevy of well-known character actors, including Joel Edgerton as a SEAL Team Six commando, James Gandolfini as the CIA Director, and Kyle Chandler in his 35th FBI/CIA Guy role of the past three years.

These actors march through bland scenes and shopworn dialogue, as Chastain's CIA Agent pursues her man with the ruthless intensity of a maverick detective in a cliche cop movie from the seventies. Her bosses are always threatening to take her off the case. She's always following up on leads no one believes in. And of course she's always right.

But ZDT has a weakness those cop thrillers don't. Because it's based on a true story, Bigelow and Boal feel compelled -- for reasons that escape me -- to preserve fidelity to the facts. CIA directors -- Maya's big boss -- change actors halfway through, because the actual CIA Director changed. But that kills the existing character relationship.

Prominent characters dominate the narrative early on -- like the bullish CIA interrogator played by Jason Clarke in the movie's best performance by a hundred yards -- and then fade to insignificance as the movie crosses its midpoint.

Most glaring of all, the movie takes a sharp turn when bin Laden's compound is located. We get a new cast of characters -- the SEAL team -- and a new objective -- not to find bin Laden; now it's to take down bin Laden. Most devastating, our main character Jessica "Maya" Chastain plays no role in the raid. She can't. Only commandoes go in. And I understand this is logically necessary, but it means our main character, our protagonist, is sitting on the sidelines for the last forty-five minutes of the movie.

That's a fatal narrative flaw.

Part of this is beyond Bigelow and Boal's control. They set out to make a movie about the unsuccessful hunt for bin Laden. Halfway through development, bin Laden was found and killed. The film-makers did a sharp 180 to incorporate this new event into their story, but it's a bit of bad luck for them, because it destroys the conceptual purpose and structure of the film.

What finally emerges is a total mess, much harder to sit through because of boredom than because of the supposedly grisly torture scenes which are getting all the play at the moment. The torture scenes, like almost everything else in the movie, feel recycled from other movies and TV shows. There's nothing we haven't seen before.

It must be mentioned, of course, that the final forty-five minutes -- the raid on bin Laden's compound -- is gripping and intense cinema. It's got everything we want from a good story: compelling visuals, narrative simplicity, the highest of stakes, an unmerciful timelock, a limited location, and utterly no shortage of authentic conflict.

In a word, it's brilliant.

But it took an hour and a half to get there.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 31/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100 (the stealth helicopters used in the raid are the coolest thing I've seen this year)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Well, I loved it.

Early critical reviews have been harsh on this Lord of the Rings prequel -- technically, Lord of the Rings is the sequel -- but I, not for the first time, am swimming against the tide.

I thought The Hobbit was better than any of the Rings films.

It might be my favorite movie this year.

What I love about it is how immersive it is. The film runs nearly three hours, but the time flew by. I attribute this to two things:

First, Tolkien's narrative is spellbinding. His Middle-Earth stories are among the best ever plotted. What lifts The Hobbit film above its Rings siblings is the fact that those movies had to compress their narratives substantially. It's hard to pack Frodo's saga, all thousand pages of it, into nine hours. Thus, there is a rushed quality to the Rings movies.

(Tolstoy and Dickens are hard to put on screen for the same reason.)

Tolkien's The Hobbit, by contrast, is only a little over two hundred pages, and it's being stretched into the same nine hours. Far from having to condense, the film-making challenge in The Hobbit is how to stretch.

This is natural and easy, as Tolkien's Hobbit is fairly plot-dense -- we get dwarves, wizards, trolls, orcs, wargs, goblins and a cave-dweller named Gollum in just this first installment. Furthermore, the storyline is embellished with scenes and episodes Tolkien wrote but did not include in his published material.

After Tolkien's death, everything he put on paper came out in his son Christopher's magnificent The Making of Middle-Earth series, and director Peter Jackson has used some of it to round out the picture of what is happening in Middle-Earth beyond the bounds of Bilbo's journey to the Lonely Mountain.

Namely, Jackson includes a scene showing the wizard Radagast encountering the deadly Necromancer -- nee Sauron -- in the forest stronghold of Dol Guldur. He includes a Rivendell discussion of this episode among the members of the White Council, which includes old friends Saruman and the Lady Galadriel -- Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, respectively.

He also fleshes out the storied hatred between the Orc King Azog and the dwarven House of Thror, whose grandson, Thorin, is our lead dwarf. Azog is a big, pale-white, pockmarked, earless orc with a kind of rusty metal thresher for a left hand, courtesy of an earlier encounter with Thorin.

So these two don't like each other at all!

Jackson also beautifully imagines the awful coming of Smaug, dragon of dragons, to the Lonely Mountain in a ten-minute sequence that kicks off the movie with an incredible bang.

Jackson even accentuates a haunting aspect of the story better than Tolkien did (!!!), and that's the sad plight of the dwarven race in this period. Routed by the dragon from Erebor, and from Moria by the orcs, the dwarves have no home kingdom in Middle-Earth. The elves have two -- Lorien and Rivendell -- while men have their famous Minas Tirith, and even hobbits have the Shire. But the dwarves have nothing, which gives poignancy and power to their quest to return to Erebor, in Bilbo's company, and vanquish the dragon.

But I digress: I said there were two reasons Jackson's film is as immersive as it is. The second is the remarkable visual quality of the film.


Without going berserk on visuals like Stanley Kubrick, but never missing an opportunity to show terrain -- Tolkien would have approved -- Jackson wields his camera as well as he ever has. The three Rings films were good practice; Jackson is now an expert at guiding audiences through Middle-Earth. And his luscious camera swings are often accompanied by a gorgeous score from A-lister Howard Shore.

Plus, computer-generated special effects seem to get better every single year. I've been a holdout for a return to model-based special effects, but it's hard not get pulled on board the CGI bandwagon when the Great Eagles look as lovely as they do here.

Now, a word about the frame rate: much of the buzz surrounding The Hobbit in recent months has been about Jackson's decision to employ a frame rate of 48 frames-per-second instead of the usual 24.

Jackson hopes that 48, with its better continuity and crispness of image, will become the industry standard. Many early viewers have complained, however, of an unintended inauthenticity due to TOO MUCH screen sharpness -- rendering sets and costumes looking, well, like sets and costumes -- not to mention some cases of motion sickness.

I had no such reaction to the look of the film in 48 FPS. Maybe it's because I saw it in 3D, which darkens the image a bit anyway, but I thought The Hobbit was the best-looking film of the year, edging out the also-marvelous Life of Pi.

The Hobbit looks like a great film, it sounds like a great film, and it acts like a great film.

I'm forced to conclude that it is a great film.

My favorite of 2012.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 89/100

How Much I enjoyed: 94/100

Monday, December 3, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

So I jumped on Facebook the other day to publish this status update:

"Downton Abbey is the worst show on TV. It's not even close."

I was being harsh. Downton is certainly not the worst show on television.

But I got a reaction, as I intended. People love Downton Abbey. Love it. It does great ratings and has a rabid fan base. It is one of TV's current landmarks, beyond question. But I find it revolting. And I finally figured out why.

It's melodrama masquerading as drama.

This may not sound earth-shaking, but it made me think of Silver Linings Playbook, the new flick by moody auteur David O. Russell, and suddenly I understood why I hated that movie too.

Like Downton, SLP is melodrama masquerading as drama.

And I hate that.


The movie follows Bradley Cooper as a guy just getting out of a mental institution. His malady is bipolar disorder, which manifests itself in rage episodes primarily centered around his ex-wife, Nikki, who had him shipped off to the crazy house after he pummeled her illicit lover upon discovering them in the shower together.

So for the first hour of the movie, we see Bradley Cooper act like a real nut job as he wakes up his parents, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, to rave and rant about Ernest Hemingway. We see him take frequent jogs wearing a garbage bag, because he's convinced he'll be able to get his ex-wife back once he gets into shape. He's even a lunatic in his interactions with hot It-girl of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Tiffany, a girl who gets set up with Cooper by neighbor friends Julia Stiles and John Ortiz.

She's a bit of a nut, too, suffering from an unidentified disorder following the death of her husband in a tragic accident.

By the way, De Niro plays a somewhat crazy person himself, cursed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder tendencies which manifest prominently during Philadelphia Eagles games.

So there's our theme: we've got a bunch of mentally disordered people. And there's our metaphor. Aren't we all disordered in one way or another?

But then there's the story, which, I'm sorry to say, is the very lowest form of melodrama. Jennifer Lawrence enlists Cooper into a dance contest, for some unimaginable reason, which De Niro somehow ends up betting his entire life's savings on against his close friend/nemesis, a character named Randy whom we don't get to know at all. The third act of the story is this dance contest, witnessed by all, including Cooper's ex-wife Nikki, who was inexplicably brought along by neighbors Stiles and Ortiz, and who ridiculously falls back in love with Cooper because of his accomplished dancing.

This leaves Cooper to decide whom he loves more, ex-wife Nikki or new love interest Jennifer Lawrence.

Of course, since we've seen Jennifer Lawrence all movie long, and since we don't know Nikki from a hole in the wall, we're rooting for Jennifer Lawrence. And that's who we get. Cooper chases her down the street in the most hackneyed convention in all of cinema, professes his love, and they kiss in the gentle snowfall.

The end.

Good golly...

Here's what I've figured out about melodrama:

Melodrama is a story in which the audience gets, at the end, precisely what they wanted at the beginning. This describes Silver Linings Playbook to a tee. We knew immediately that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence belonged together, because they're both nuts and they're both played by movie stars. We got exactly what we wanted.

This also describes Downton Abbey. No matter what obstacles intervene -- be they war, pestilence, vengeful ex-spouses, unjust class prejudice or financial misfortune -- we know damn well that Anna will end up with Bates, Lady Mary will end up with Matthew Crawley, and Downton Abbey will remain in the beneficent hands of the Granthams for generations to come.

That's melodrama.

Here's what drama is:

No matter how much we want Rocky to beat Apollo, he loses the fight. All he gains, in the end, is self-worth. Something he never knew was his deepest desire.

No matter how much we want Bogie to end up with Ingrid Bergman, she goes off with Victor Laszlo. All Bogie gets, in the end, is self-worth. Something he never knew was his deepest desire.

There's a pattern here!

In drama, characters, and, by extension, audiences, don't get what they want. They get what they need. And it's infinitely greater than the feeble trophies they had in mind.

In melodrama, the trophies are everything, and no matter how much those trophies are threatened, they are always granted to our heroes in triumphant fashion.

And just so I'm clear, there is a place for melodrama. One of my favorite movies this year, the sci-fi actioner Lockout, is sheer melodrama. Guy Pearce runs around a space station trying to free the President's daughter before the station burns up in orbit or she is killed by violent Euro-trash prisoner types. And you know what happens? He saves the President's daughter.

Melodrama.

So we're getting into real murky territory. Personal preference assumes a dominant role. Is Silver Linings Playbook your preferred brand of melodrama? Read my synopsis, make up your mind, and go with God.

But it's not my preference.

I think it's garbage.

SCORE

How Accomplished: ?/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 37/100

Friday, November 30, 2012

Life of Pi

My dad and I disagree over the recent movie Lincoln.

He found the examination of the politics behind passage of the 13th Amendment absorbing. I had the opposite reaction; I couldn't engage with the situation, nor could I convince myself the characters I was watching were real. The actors were too famous for that.

I think it goes to show how different people go to the movies looking to have different experiences. Not just different flavors of experience; different experiences altogether.

I like getting completely absorbed in a world utterly different from my own -- the more different, the better I like it -- but one which operates under rules and principles familiar to me, and ends up shedding unexpected insight into my own tragically mundane reality.

My dad hates crap like that.

He wants a movie to present a world that is, above all, real. Thus, he likes stories based on true events. He likes dialogue to sound authentic and plot events to resemble things that might actually happen. He even likes movies to have actors he recognizes. In this, he partakes in the majority opinion. We have a star system because people want to see stars in their movies.

I think some people just don't like to be fooled. They want to know they're watching a movie when they're watching a movie. They like to know what they're getting.

Not me. At the movies, and maybe elsewhere, I desperately want to be fooled.

Thankfully, I was expertly fooled by the majestic Life of Pi.

The movie sucked me in completely. It lifted me out of the movie theater, it wrapped me in its immersive embrace and then, just when I thought the entire journey had been a departure from reality, it showed me that we had been in the real world all along. We just didn't recognize it.

And that's... what I go to the movies for.

The Pi of the title is Pi Patel, a middle-class Indian boy named after a swimming pool in France called the Piscine Molitor. See how silly we're getting already? How whimsical and far from reality?

Pi's family embark on a trip across the ocean to Canada, where they intend to start a new life, but they never make it. The ship sinks. All aboard are lost to the oceanic depths, except for Pi and a quartet of animals: a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra and a Bengal tiger.

Being stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with these four animals presents obvious challenges. These challenges simplify, but do not lessen, when the Hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, and the tiger kills the hyena.

Now we have an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger. And a lot of water.


This central situation is primal and compelling. We've seen life raft dramas before, and we've seen man vs. monster scenarios, but to have them combined is pretty thrilling.

There's good craft inherent in the situation, too. We take two characters who are complete opposites and throw them together. Conflict results, the stakes are high and immediate, and the central relationship is right there for all to behold.

Because of course the boy and the tiger develop a relationship. Of course they become uneasy allies. Of course they change each other in profound ways.

And of course they very nearly die out there in the vast blue sea, the perfect metaphor for an indifferent cosmos.

And that's where the movie brings us back to our own lives, with the power of metaphor. There's a twist at the end I won't spoil here -- so highly do I prize the value of this movie -- which does everything a good twist should do. It doesn't undermine what has gone before; it amplifies it. It contextualizes it. It reveals reality through the power of fantasy.

As I said, it's what I'm looking for in a movie.

On top of it all, Life of Pi is a visual marvel. Ang Lee's movies are almost always expertly shot, but this time he really cuts loose. You'll pay a little extra for the 3D version of the movie, but it's more than worth it. In fact, you could probably call Life of Pi the world's first 3D movie aimed at adults.

Enjoy it.

You know, if that's what you're looking for in a movie.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 92/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 94/100

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

Yeah, I saw the new Twilight movie.

Yeah, I liked it.

So what?

Why are you asking so many questions? Why don't you just back off?

Okay, ever since climbing onto the Twilight bandwagon -- back in movie three -- I've felt a little defensive about the whole phenomenon, just because it takes so much flak from everyone not snugly inside its fan base. In this way, it was like our recent presidential election. Everyone became polarized one way or the other, and for three or four months there, it was hard to be a self-respecting moderate. No one liked me, it seemed.

That's how I've felt about Twilight. Like I belonged to the opposition party no matter who I was talking to.

But no longer.

Twilight is over. This movie, with its lumbering title The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 -- see, even our sequels have sequels! -- marks the conclusion of the story that has guided millions of girls through puberty.

And it does so with a bang.


Everything in the movie builds toward a climactic battle between the sexy, friendly vampire clan called the Cullens and the sexy, menacing authorities of the vampire world called the Volturi. The Cullens, being badly outnumbered, send out a call for allies, bringing together vampire clans from around the world.

The Cullens are one stronger this movie than last. Our girl Bella now has eyes that glow red, feels a thirst for warm blood, and as a newborn vampire, is considerably stronger than anyone else in her adoptive family.

The Cullens also have the local werewolves on their side, which is nice.

Soon, allies pour in. We get Indian vampires, we get Romanians, we get Alaskans. It's a real multi-cultural effort. What we don't get is Bella's BFF Alice and her boyfriend Jasper. They take off soon after Alice has her vision of the coming conflict. This raises the troubling idea that the prescient Alice knows the Cullens are in a battle they can't win, but of course we suspect she will return to aid her family at the appropriately climactic moment, and of course she does.

All this trouble springs from the existence of Edward and Bella's newborn little girl, the unfortunately named Renesmee, who gets mistaken for a child vampire by a passing acquaintance, who squeals to the Volturi. (Don't you hate teacher's pets?) In truth, Renesmee is not a straightforward child vampire, since she was born to Bella moments before Bella's transformation into a vamp. Instead, Renesmee is a living person sprung from a vampire. (I'm not getting into the biology beyond that.)

This revelation won't avert violence, however, since the Volturi's underlying motive is to break the growing power and popularity of the Cullen clan.

All of this is terrific for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it raises the stakes on all the preceding books/movies. All former enemies are now united against the biggest, baddest foe in this fictional universe, the Volturi. That makes the story feel big and makes it feel decisive. By contrast, the writers of Return of the Jedi couldn't think of anything better than to have the Empire build a second, equally ill-fated Death Star.

Secondly, the threat of looming destruction casts a pall over the mood of our characters, particularly Bella, which is a perfect tone-match for the series. The emotional essence of Twilight is romantic love amidst certain doom -- the teenage experience! -- and Breaking Dawn captures it perfectly.

I guess it's also great because we're treated to a massive vampire battle at the end of the movie.

Said battle involves a literary sleight-of-hand I usually detest. Although the fight is spectacular -- heads get ripped off, throats get torn out, combatants fall into a thousand-mile-deep crevasse, beloved characters die! -- it doesn't actually happen. After it's over, and both sides are utterly decimated, it's revealed to be a vision of the future, imparted to the leader of the Volturi by Alice.

Given a chance to consider the cost of victory -- which includes his own death at the hands of Bella and Edward -- the leader of the Volturi prudently elects to withdraw in peace.

Like I said, normally I hate that crap. But in this case... I don't know, maybe I'm just a damn Twi-hard with no sense of perspective. It worked for me, though. I don't really come to a Twilight movie to see Carlisle get his head ripped off for real. And I don't need the Volturi utterly destroyed. Life is more fun with them out there, hanging over our heroine's head, keeping her forever mopey and gloomy, just the way we like her.

Besides...

It's not like the Twilight series is OVER over. Stephenie Meyer's still young, and it's not like her forthcoming The Host is going to light the world on fire like Twilight did. (Well, it could, but it's astronomically unlikely.)

We live in an age where brands are the coin of the realm. Star Trek was rebooted two years ago. Star Wars just got new life with Disney. Harry Potter and Twilight -- this generation's Star Trek and Star Wars -- have wrapped up their movie iterations, but I find it impossible to believe we won't revisit these fictional worlds, and soon.

There's just too much money in it.

So it's not over.

It'll never be over.

Bella and Edward 4-ever!!!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 86/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 89/100

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Flight

I'm about to issue a controversial opinion, shared by almost no one.

I'm sorry in advance.

Here's the opinion:

(Have I built it up enough yet?)

Subject matter, in a movie, is inconsequential.

Which is to say, you can make a good movie on any subject, just as you can make a bad movie on any subject. Certainly, some subjects are more amenable to good storytelling than others, and those subjects have resolved into our various genres. But no genre -- or sub-genre -- is inherently superior to any other.

This is a roundabout way of saying "Dramas are not inherently superior to comedies or action movies."

Stated thus, most people tend to agree with that assertion. But in practice they rebel against it with every fiber of their intellect. They just can't get it into their head that a movie like Lincoln -- to pull up a recent example -- isn't nearly the equal of the superb Naked Gun Two and a Half: The Smell of Fear.

But it isn't. I don't know what you want me to do about it; it's just the truth.


The reason I make this point is because we've entered the Serious Season. Gone are the days when movies about big robots and spaceships and superheroes filled the multiplex. It's character drama time and, naturally, this creates an inclination to think movies are better than they were four months ago.

They aren't, though, and I point out the Robert Zemeckis-directed, Denzel Washington starrer Flight as prime evidence.

Here's what Flight is about: Denzel plays an experienced airline pilot who saves his jet from certain doom in a way reminiscent of "Sully" Sullenberger, the American Airlines pilot who successfully ditched his ruined plane into the Hudson River in 2009.

Now here's the twist: a few days after the incident, while Denzel is being hailed as a national hero, the blood tests come back from his hospital stay. Denzel was drunk times three and high on cocaine at the time of the accident.


A lifelong alcoholic, Denzel claims his condition did not impair his flying ability, and he's probably right, but it's going to ruin his reputation and his career when it comes out in a public NTSB interrogation.

That's a great idea for a movie, isn't it?

And serious. Lots of moral implications in that premise. Lots of meaty ideas to chew on.

Then the movie happens.

It really has nothing to do with airplanes and nothing to do with celebrity. What plays out in the second and third acts is a rote addiction drama, with Denzel alternately emptying out all the liquor bottles in his house, then getting loaded again; telling people he's eager to get help for his problem, then slurring that he's got his drinking under control.

Rinse and repeat for eighty minutes.

What kills any last shred of potential is the utter lack of craft involved in the screenplay. Rather than have an NTSB investigator intent on taking Denzel down, we have an airline lawyer played by Don Cheadle whose goal is to help Denzel beat the rap. But he acts like a jerk to Denzel, and that's where our conflict comes from. Argh!

Everyone in the whole movie is trying to help Denzel: his ol' buddy Union rep, his drinkin' buddy and drug hook-up John Goodman, and the trashy-cute heroin addict he meets in the hospital.

The only conflict, the only adversary, is Denzel's drinking habit.

Argh!

The movie is a lot like life: Denzel wants to quit drinking, but simply can't. Each scene, Denzel meets a new character to talk to. There's no story development and no deeper meaning -- "you should try not to be addicted to alcohol" is not meaning; it's a moral.

So, sure, Flight is realistic. I guess.

But it's not drama. And it's not good.

No one's going to agree with me on this movie, because it's a Serious Movie with an Important Message about a Relevant Social Problem starring an Oscar-Winning Actor.

But it's terrible.

Trust me.

SCORE

How Accomplished:  31/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 26/100

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lincoln

I'm trying not to be offensive. I really am.

But boy...

...Spielberg is really blowing up his legacy these days.

He just sucks.

Not "sucks considering his accomplishments." Not "sucks considering our expectations." And certainly not "sucks considering his lofty ambitions." No, he sucks by any standard.

Just sucks.

He's had three movies come out in the last year or so: The Adventures of Tintin -- sucked -- War Horse -- sucked bad -- and Lincoln.

Hoo boy, did Lincoln suck.


Lincoln is about the most famous and revered person in American history. You might think this makes him a natural movie subject, but in truth he's hard to do. John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln is the only Lincoln movie I can think of, and it was made in 1939.

The problem is, Lincoln's been turned into something of an angel in the popular imagination, and angels are hard to make movies about.

Spielberg sort of tries anyway, though his interpretation of the character is the same congenial, compassionate, wise old man as everyone else's. He draws his inspiration from Doris Kearns Goodwin's thoroughly mediocre slab of a book, "Team of Rivals." Kearns Goodwin rambles and wanders endlessly, and while Spielberg confines himself to Lincoln's effort to pass the 13th Amendment, the one abolishing slavery, the movie still clocks in at a painfully self-important two and a half hours.

Oh, and boring. Lincoln is the most boring movie of 2012. Maybe the most boring movie of the last two years.

The reason is twofold: Passage of the 13th Amendment is all about politics.Therefore it's the least cinematic thread of Lincoln's presidency. There's a Civil War occurring and an assassination looming, yet we're stuck with vote-chasing. All the political talk reminded me equally of The Phantom Menace and Spielberg's first true debacle, Amistad.

The second reason is equally devastating to the movie's watchability: There is no moral complexity to any of the characters.

Moral complexity is what can make a period piece interesting. Mozart is a genius who can hear the voice of God undiluted, but in Amadeus he's also a womanizing little pipsqueak who likes fart jokes. Interesting.

In Lincoln, by contrast, everyone is either a saint or a sinner. Mary Todd, played by Sally Field, goes in the saint category, as does David Straithairn's William Seward and Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens.

In case you can't tell, almost every character in the movie is played by a seasoned actor. This eliminates the tiniest possibility that we can forget, even for a second, we're watching a movie about Lincoln and not having an authentic experience. God forbid that should happen.

In the same vein, Daniel Day-Lewis is an excellent actor, and he does a good job with the part, but it's still Daniel Day-Lewis directed by Steven Spielberg based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book. So the movie ends up feeling like a school play with unusually high production values.

And then there's the bad guys. You're not going to believe this, but the guys trying to stop the 13th Amendment were real jerks. Kick-a-puppy-on-the-way-to-work jerks.

I have to confess, the question of Spielberg's descent from greatness to hackness fixates me. This is the guy who had his villain in E.T. say to Elliot, "I'm glad you found him first." It's the guy who made Belloq, the French archaeologist, just as smart and twice as charming as his American counterpart in Raiders. It's the guy who made a sociopathic prison camp commandant in Schindler's List go on a spree of virtuous acts, for God's sake.

So I know Spielberg knows HOW to craft sympathetic bad guys. He just doesn't do it anymore.

I don't really understand why, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that he now has a wife, children, a multi-billion dollar fortune, and the biggest reputation in the history of the art form. Something about sympathetic bad guys, about movies that are actually interesting, something about the effort to achieve greatness is really, really risky.

And Spielberg's not in the risk business anymore.

Which is too bad.

Because once upon a time...

...he was one of the very best.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 23/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 11/100

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Skyfall

It's a thinly disguised fact that James Bond movies aren't really about James Bond.

(They're not even about the Bond girls!)

They're about the villain.

Goldfinger. Dr. No. The cat-stroking Blofeld. Isn't it remarkable how many classic villains the franchise has turned out?

But how many has it produced in the modern era? The number I keep coming up with is zero.

Unfortunately, the losing streak continues with Skyfall, whose villain, played by the amazing Javier Bardem, utterly fails to ignite the movie.

The fault lies with the script. Bardem's blond evildoer, a former 00 himself -- a conceit I'm sure was used in the Timothy Dalton era -- doesn't appear until nearly the halfway mark. That's a sign of trouble.

While we're waiting, the movie focuses on Judi Dench's M getting pressured by the British Government to resign after a list of undercover British agents around the world was lost -- another conceit I think was used in a previous Bond movie --  during an operation which involved Bond himself getting shot by a fellow agent, the slinky but imprecise Eve.

Bond goes missing for awhile after getting shot. So we're stuck with M, who has to deal with the political machinations and barbed sarcasm of Ralph Fiennes' British politician, as well as a series of computer hackings by a mysterious enemy who has acquired the errant list so important to M.

Bond returns, of course, and signs up to defend his boss. It's not so easy, since apparently he's getting old -- I don't see how Daniel Craig is old enough to require this plotline, but whatever -- so he has to be retested for his physical qualifications.

He fails.

I hate stories like this, where the hero with the amazing abilities loses his amazing abilities, not to get them back until the very end. (In this case, Bond doesn't even get them back then.)

So not only are we missing a villain in the first half of the movie, we're missing Bond.

Also, tragically, the movie fails to capitalize on the previous chemistry that has grown between Craig and Dench. They just snipe at each other here, no matter how often other people, like Ralph Fiennes, tell us Dench has a soft spot for Bond.

Even Dench's death scene -- whoops, spoiler -- is without impact. Her death-rattled "At least I got something right" to Bond comes off less as a token of esteem than a bitter comment on her recent political persecutions.

And I understand that Bond Girls are not just expendable but profoundly likely to die, but it was still disheartening to see Bond so unaffected by the death of the casino hostess he just bedded then failed to save that he barely raised an eyebrow. I'm pretty sure her body was left in the sand on that island when Bond flew back to London, so little did he seem to care.

But it's the bad guy who really undoes this movie. Bardem, given absolutely nothing to work with except the typical grandiloquent speechifying of the villain and a shock of blond hair, has one of the worst plans in the history of the Bond franchise.


His goal is to kill M because she betrayed him to the Chinese etc. Too bad this small-scale plot makes the movie feel really pointless. Countless innocents -- including that casino hostess -- end up dead because Bond tries so vigorously to stop Bardem from assassinating one person, his retiring boss for whom, again, he doesn't seem to show much affection.

Bardem's method is to -- drum roll -- allow himself to be captured! Which really must be in the air these days, because it's the same plan Loki had in this summer's Avengers, and it didn't make sense there either. Bardem's theory is that he'll get captured, the good guys will try to hack his computer to recover the stolen list, the computer virus he's stored in his computer will short circuit MI6's power grid, which will allow him to escape, rush to 10 Downing street, or wherever the British parliament holds their conferences, and shoot M with a bullet.

Seems to me, he could dispense with all that and just shoot her with a bullet anytime he wants, but hey! I'm not a blond arch-villain in a Bond movie.

There's a final action set piece at Bond's childhood home, a Scottish manor called Skyfall, which makes no sense from Bond's tactical perspective and solely serves to get us talking and thinking about Bond's childhood. The point of which eludes me, because it's awfully late in the game to be developing character.

Skyfall doesn't know what it's doing, where it's going, or how to do any of it in an expeditious manner. It's a waste of a movie in the otherwise enjoyable Daniel Craig era.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 46/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 43/100

Argo

Ben Affleck frustrates me.

He makes such mediocre films.

What he's directed so far: Gone Baby Gone, The Town and, now, Argo.

They have a lot in common. All are thrillers. All are based on pre-existing source material. All are very much in the realm of the possible, so much so you could almost place them in the realm of the probable. There are no flights of fancy in Ben Affleck movies. They are invariably about serious, grim-faced people doing sensible things in the face of moderate adversity.

Blech!!!

Movies can be so much greater. Good Will Hunting was greater. That had humor and sadness, warmth and humanity. It had all Will Hunting's own immense talents and shortcomings.

And that's what we go to the theater for: a ride. We don't go to get in an airplane, taxi around the runway then debark. But that's what all Affleck's movies feel like to me. The promise of a ride, unfulfilled.


Argo follows CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, in his quest to rescue five American would-be hostages of Iran who are hiding out in the Canadian embassy following the Iranian Revolution in 1980.

There's no easy way to get the hostages out of the hostile country, until Affleck comes up with an inspired plan: to go in under the guise of a Hollywood film crew on a location scout, and smuggle the hostages out as part of the crew.

The fake movie they're making is called Argo, and it's a Star Wars knock off. That could have provided a lot of humor, and there are stabs at it in the early Hollywood scenes, but the humor is pretty thin gruel. Lots of easy stereotypes about sleazy producers and deceitful studios bosses. Zing!

Here's the other major problem: everything happens exactly as the characters want it to. It's one of the easiest traps to fall into as a writer. Check out these important plot points:

-Affleck and company try to come up with a plan to get the hostages out, but there is no easy solution. So Affleck goes home, watches Planet of the Apes, and immediately conceives of The Answer.

-Affleck pitches his far-fetched plan to his CIA bosses. They balk at it, but by the end of the scene they are talked into it. There simply are no alternatives.

-Affleck and producer John Goodman approach super-producer Alan Arkin. He laughs off their crazy plan -- it can't be done! -- but after catching a glimpse of the hostages on TV later in the scene, he's all in.

-Affleck and Arkin go to a studio executive to buy the rights for the screenplay of Argo. The exec refuses -- no way! -- because he and Arkin have a rocky past. But by the end of the scene, Arkin has convinced him no one else wants the script, and it's theirs for a song.

-At the climactic moment of the film, the Iranian thugs at airport security question Affleck and his film crew -- tensely! Boy are they suspicious! -- but all questions are answered and the good guys get on their plane.

The technical way to phrase this is: there are no reversals in Argo. The plot proceeds in a straight line, without ever twisting or looping or getting briefly tangled.

This may well have been the way events happened, but that's neither here nor there in the case of a fictionalized movie. Argo is too much like reality for its own good. We have plenty of that outside the theater. Inside, we're looking for art.

My mom disagrees with me on this movie. She loved Argo, so I put a tough question to her: what's the central relationship of the movie? Who cares about whom?

She answered it's the relationship between Affleck and his mostly supportive CIA boss, played by Bryan Cranston. And that's a reasonable answer, but the problem is, they spend almost the entire movie out of communication with each other. Their final scene takes place in the CIA parking lot where Cranston tells Affleck about the medal he's going to receive, and they crack a few jokes about Jimmy Carter.

There's nothing in that scene any two acquaintances wouldn't say to each other. There's nothing personal there. Just a shared joke about a dangerous assignment that went perfectly to plan.

So take THAT, mom!


There's an understandable aspect to Affleck's incredibly safe, conservative choices: he's afraid of failure. That's no suprise, everyone is, but Affleck had a string of box office bombs in the early 2000's that threatened the future of his acting career. He seems to have taken a lesson from that experience, but it's an unfortunate one. He's learned not to take chances.

It's increasingly clear that Ben Affleck is going to be his generation's Ron Howard, the blandest, most obvious director of his era.

Imagine what Will Hunting would say.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 50/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Looper

This is a toughie.

Looper is a movie with prominent strengths and equally noticeable weaknesses.

I'm going to give it a score in the middle range, but that's not to imply it's some kind of tasteless bowl of oatmeal. There's real artistry at play here, which is more than I can say for most movies.

Here's the good:
 
Looper borrows plot elements from a ton of different sources without feeling derivative itself. That's hard! See if you can spot all the sources from this plot description:

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a young triggerman for the mob -- of the future. They send back victims, tied and gagged. All JGL has to do is shoot them and dispose of the bodies, which no one is looking for anyway, since they won't be killed -- technically -- for another 30 years.

That's kind of ingenious, right?

Trouble arises when JGL faces a victim he recognizes: himself. We would recognize him as Bruce Willis. Every "looper" eventually gets his loop closed this way. The mob doesn't like loose ends. As a good looper, JGL dutifully pulls the trigger on himself, but our boy Willis is prepared. He avoids the fatal shot, and manages to turn the tables on JGL.


Now he's running around in the present, trying to locate the architect of his capture and his Chinese wife's murder (that's right! It's a Chinese co-production!) -- a telekinetic villain known as "The Rainmaker."

Which brings us to something else Looper does well. It blends two different and unrelated fantastical concepts: time travel and telekinesis. This is hard to do, and it's a violation of what the great Blake Snyder calls the "double mumbo jumbo" rule, but when it's done well it can raise your story to a whole new level. It's done well here. Telekinetic mobster from the future. Sending bodies back to the present. Check and check.

The plot is therefore somewhat complicated. JGL and Bruce are both running from present day mobsters, Bruce is running from JGL, and JGL is trying to protect the child that will become "The Rainmaker" from Bruce. While doing so, JGL sort of falls in love -- really it's closer to lust -- with the child's mom, who is played by Emily Blunt.

If you can tell, there's a lot of Terminator in there, some Blade Runner in the future scenes, and even a little of the old "Star Trek" episode, The Enemy Within.

Here's some more good:

The time travel element is mined for lots of clever touches. The mob wants to get their hands on JGL, even though he's done nothing wrong, because any mutilation of JGL will manifest in Bruce, which will compel the old guy to limp back to the mob and get killed, rather than suffer any more amputations-from-a-distance.

JGL uses this principle to set up a meeting with Bruce by carving a message into his own arm, leaving a legible scar for Bruce to read thirty years later.

Now here's the bad:

There's a gaping hole where Looper's heart should be. The fault is the characters'. There's really no one to love, partly because no character loves any other character. Bruce and JGL find shockingly little common ground, for being the same person, and seem to have little regard for each other. JGL and Emily Blunt have only a grudging and forced level of trust, buffered by a completely gratuitous sex scene motivated by Emily Blunt's horniness and writer/director Rian Johnson's need to get a relationship going somewhere, anywhere in his movie.

Then there's the mobster played by Jeff Daniels, who claims an affection for JGL but spends the movie trying to ice him. There's also the kid, who we're told will grow into a full-blown sociopath and even now has a tendency to throw temper tantrums and reduce other humans into a bloody mulch with the power of his mind.

Gulp.

The ending of Looper is affecting, but only on a philosophical level, just like the rest of the movie.

The characters that live and die matter to us for what they represent, not what they are. And that's a shame, because a movie that can tap into an emotional dimension through the power of character relationships has an even higher ceiling than one that combines double mumbo jumbo.

It's worth noting that although Looper has about six thousand logic flaws -- starting with "Why doesn't the mob kill its victims, THEN send them back in time -- they didn't inhibit my enjoyment of the movie.

Goes to show that plot holes are things that appear when a movie isn't working. They really don't matter when it is.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 67/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 73/100

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bullet to the Head

I can't vouch for the commercial prospects of Bullet to the Head. I saw it at a free screening which was unable to fill the theater. And the title feels like a setup for the opening weekend headline: "Stallone Flick Executed Gangland Style."

But I can say this: the movie's pretty good. Or at least, as good as any movie called Bullet to the Head can possibly be.

The story tracks Stallone's Jimmy Bobo, a remorseless hit man who gets betrayed by his client and attacked in a crowded bar by uber-psycho Jason Momoa, who played Conan in the recent listless Conan the Barbarian remake, but is very good here as a human killing machine.

Stallone survives Momoa's attack, but his hit man partner doesn't. Now Stallone wants revenge on Momoa, and his own unknown client, in the worst possible way.

This set-up takes place within a hundred seconds or so. The film's in a hurry to get where it's going, and that's the pairing of Stallone with an Asian kung fu cop played by Sung Kang, of the Fast and Furious movies. These two are opposites -- Kang's a straight arrow with a strict sense of virtue, and Stallone's a land shark -- so we've got that going for us.

The movie is part noir detective story. Stallone and Kang traipse the dark, rainy streets of post-Katrina New Orleans looking for their next lead. It's also part action movie, as most sequences climax with a combination fistfight/gunfight between Stallone and a rogues' gallery of dangerous lowlifes.

It's obvious who the movie star in the partnership is. Kang gets his moments, but they are few and far between. Mostly he is a foil for Stallone, who gets to play a fun character, the slow-talking, sardonic, hulking Jimmy, who happens to be an unbeatable combatant.

Or almost unbeatable. The movie sets us up for a final showdown between the formidable Jimmy Bobo and the seemingly more formidable Jason Momoa. The final fight is an inventive one -- when's the last time you saw an axe fight? -- and when it's all over, someone gets a bullet to the head.


Actually, lots of characters get bullets to the head. The movie is exceedingly violent in a darkly funny graphic novel kind of way. That's no surprise, as the movie derives from a darkly funny graphic novel.

And that's the proper audience for this story: graphic novel fanboys. Hit man movie aficionados. Sylvester Stallone devotees.

The question is whether this audience is big enough to support a movie that must have cost in the fifty million dollar range. We'll see when the film gets released in February.

My guess is that Bullet to the Head will be one of those decent, enjoyable films that gets undeservedly murdered at the box office.

Gangland style!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 61/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 70/100

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

Just as people are living longer and healthier than ever before, movie franchises are showing amazing vitality many sequels deep. Last year's Fast Five was good and so was Underworld 4 earlier this year.

Truly we live in a wondrous modern age.

So I had high hopes for Resident Evil 5, the latest installment of a franchise I am a confessed sucker for. But as so often happens in life, my hopes were dashed on the cruel rocks of reality.

The problems with the five-quel are twofold:

First, the basic plot is uninspired. Consider the plots of the three good entries in this series:

RE1 -- Our girl Milla must go into a high-tech underground research base loaded with zombies to search for survivors of a disastrous bio-containment failure. In the end, she must contend with the computer mind of the facility itself, which does not want her -- or anyone -- to escape.

Good, right?

RE2 -- Milla awakens above ground to discover the dreaded T-Virus has escaped the underground facility and infected the populace. Now she must gather her friends and cross the zombie-filled city to an evacuation point before the authorities nuke the city to contain the virus.

All riiiiiight!

RE4 -- The whole world is overrun with zombies. Milla lands her helicopter on the roof of a Los Angeles prison, to which she's drawn by an SOS signal. On the plus side, she does find a handful of people who need saving. On the minus side, her helicopter gets wrecked and now she's trapped in the prison as well. Surrounded by about a hundred thousand zombies clamoring to get in.

The classic zombie story.

Now we have RE5, the plot of which is: Milla, captured by the evil corporation who invented the T-Virus, must work her way through various zombie-filled "simulation zones" in order to escape. The zones include a simulation of generic suburbia, followed by one for New York, then one for Moscow.

Ugh. Doesn't that just feel less interesting?

Part of the problem is the fakery involved. We already know we're in a movie, so if the New York City portrayed in the movie isn't real even within the context of the movie, then our suspension of disbelief just took a hit.

Second, we've got "plot coupon" syndrome. Any time a hero has to collect four sections of the treasure map, or three mystical stones of power, or -- dare I say it? -- a bunch of damn horcruxes, then a lot of the unpredictability, and therefore tension, drains out of the story. We know exactly how everything is going to go for the next hour, and the shape of the plot is a flat line instead of a rising slope.

It doesn't help that Milla -- tragically -- is aging, which reduces her white-hot good looks as well as her ability to perform the wall-to-wall stunts the franchise likes to employ her with. Thus we get "Ada," a younger Asian martial artist sent to help Milla escape.


We're also saddled with a teenage girl named Becky doing her best impression of Newt from Aliens. Unfortunately, RE5 doesn't really commit to this storyline, so the whole Becky subplot feels tacked on. It's one of those "oh yeah, we need some kind of relationship subplot somewhere" additions to the story.

Also it's too much like Newt from Aliens.

The final nail in the coffin is that title: Retribution. This is the same basic idea as the subtitle of the second Star Wars movie (remember, prequels don't exist), but look how much strength comes with the introduction of an active verb: in more creative hands, Retribution becomes The Empire Strikes Back, surely one of the most audacious, effective titles in all of cinema.

You should never underestimate a good verb.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 41/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Master

This is going to be a galvanizing movie.

It reminds me a lot of last year's The Tree of Life. That was a galvanizing movie too.

The reason is that neither movie follows any kind of conventional story structure. Neither movie has characters that arc, set-ups that pay off; neither movie is overly concerned with scene tension, or irony, or rising action. God help you if you're looking for act breaks.

But I liked The Tree of Life, and I like The Master.

Weird, right?


The plot -- such as it is -- follows two characters: Phillip Seymour Hoffman's civilized, charismatic cult leader, who seems very much based on L. Ron Hubbard, and Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, an alcoholic brute of a recently-discharged World War II veteran. The film takes place in the late forties.

Freddie runs across L. Ron Hoffman by sneaking onto his party boat for free hors d'oeuvres. Only later he discovers it's not a party boat, but a floating cult HQ which happens to be throwing a party. Freddie drinks too much, starts a fight, and gets locked in the brig.

The next morning he is brought into the presence of L. Ron. These two are complete opposites; one is an intellectual seeking a path to trans-human enlightenment; the other is almost sub-verbal. But they like each other, instantly and fully.

And that's the first sign we're not dealing with Hollywood -- or anything audience-pleasing at all. If the Hoffman/Phoenix relationship is the center of the film, and it is, then they have to start out disliking each other for their late-occurring closeness to have any power or meaning.

The reason the relationship worked for me anyway is that I clued into something thematically that gave me a framework to interpret the scenes that followed, thus keeping me moored to the film when I might otherwise have drifted away. This "thing" I intuited seems not to be universally accepted, and I may well be inventing it out of whole cloth, but it seemed obvious to me at the time. It's that L. Ron and Freddie are two sides of the same character, not just metaphorically but literally. Or as close to literally as you can come without introducing an experimental personality split-o-tron into the story.

If you accept that Freddie has all the raw desires and appetites of the character -- not just representing those attributes, but almost fully embodying them -- and L. Ron has all the intellectual faculties, then the movie plays out in pretty interesting fashion. Everyone around L. Ron hates Freddie and can't imagine how L. Ron tolerates such a crude and unpredictable lunatic, let alone delights in his presence.

Meanwhile, L. Ron spends the movie preaching his cultic scripture of transcendance, of New Age-y, mind-over-matter, fast-track evolution. This is pretty ironic because of the overwhelming soft spot he has for the least evolved movie character of the year. (And I said the movie disdained irony. Shame on me.)

There's a truly great scene that takes place in adjoining prison cells; Freddie in one, L. Ron in the other. They occupy a split screen, all rage and id on the one side, all rationality and ego on the other. It's a compelling scene, and captures the movie in a nutshell.

But don't look for an ending that resolves anything, or a climactic confrontation, or anything like that. You'll just be disappointed.

As a side note, it's been fascinating to watch auteur Paul Thomas Anderson's evolving artistic identity. One reason people are rebelling against The Master is that it comes from the director who, once upon a time, gave us narrative ticklers like Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, movies that are conventionally conceived but executed at an unusually high level.

That's what people want more of, but it doesn't seem to be what PTA wants to make. Magnolia -- my personal PTA fave -- started the trend toward cinematic experimentation. It reached an apex of critical acceptance with There Will be Blood, but after The Master, you can almost feel people thinking, "Wait a minute, so you're really not going to do anything like Boogie Nights again? Ever? Aww!"

And I feel that way too. Aww. I love Boogie Nights.

But The Master's pretty good too, albeit in a completely different way.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 79/100

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Great Gatsby

Who hasn't said to themselves at a quiet moment during the day, "You know what I would love? A 3-D movie version of The Great Gatsby!"

Gatsby, of course, is the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel about New York in the roaring twenties.

In it, narrator Nick Carroway moves to a fashionable part of the city, where he gets acquainted with his distant cousin Daisy, her brutish husband Tom, and the mysterious kajillionaire Jay Gatsby, who crushes on Daisy in one of literary history's all-time cases of unrequited love.

(Since literary history is pretty much composed of cases of unrequited love, that's really saying something.)

There exists a 1974 film version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy, which high school students are usually forced to watch. This is appropriate, since the movie feels like homework: slow, boring, and with no connection to actual life.

Now we have a 2012 version -- 2013, actually, the release date isn't until next May -- starring Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, Carey Mulligan as the oh-so-shallow Daisy, and Joel Edgerton as Tom.


First of all, the cast is magnificent. Leo's fast turning into the best actor of his generation, Carey Mulligan's becoming the token amazing-British-actress of her generation, sort of a younger Emma Thompson, and Tobey Maguire is, well, Tobey Maguire; but the part of Nick doesn't require much more than a bland sort of Gatsby-worship, and since Tobey belongs to DiCaprio's entourage, you could say he's been preparing for this role most of his life.

The new version of Gatsby does a great job conveying the soul of the original story which, like my beloved Mad Men, has a lot to do with the reality of success, of wealth, of happiness -- of America! -- falling short of the image we hold in our heads.

This is ironic, since F. Scott idolized the rich -- something Hemingway castigated him for. Yet in Gatsby, Fitzgerald went the other way, building up the romantic illusion that happiness is only the right house or the right woman, or the right name change away, then climaxing his story with the emptiness and futility of it all, as both the actual Daisy and Gatsby's idealized notion of her slip out of grasp.

This may sound expected or cliche, but for Fitzgerald it was a huge thematic leap. It's almost as if Fitzgerald was able to sustain, simultaneously, his infatuation with the world's glitterati and his disdain for them, writing his tale with both aspects equally alive in his mind. Maybe that's why the story as written holds such profound power.

Regardless, director Baz Luhrmann does a great job capturing the iconic moments of this familiar tale. The ugly car accident, the fateful swim in the pool, the unattended funeral... each moment plays with an operatic breathlessness perfectly suited to it.

If Luhrmann's knack for melodrama adds a lot of vitality to the movie, so too does his visual generosity. Gatsby 3-D! as I wish it were called, is a dazzling gem to behold. The lavish parties Gatsby throws are presented in ridiculous over-the-top fashion. They are bigger than the biggest parties ever thrown. They certainly don't resemble anything that actually took place in the early 20's. And thank goodness. Sometimes fidelity is the bane of adaptation. Any remake must grow in the remaker's imagination. Otherwise, ironically, the spirit of the original has no chance to survive the translation.

No fear of that here. Luhrmann grabs Gatsby and runs with it, turning in an unexpected masterpiece of a remake.

The movie's been bumped from its original Christmas release date, all the way to next May, partly because the studio doesn't want to compete with the other big Leonardo di Caprio movie coming out at Christmas, Tarantino's Django Unchained.

But I hope a lot of people turn out for the movie in May, because I really want to see the next big Hollywood blockbuster: For Whom the Bell Tolls 3-D!

Note:

I saw this movie at an advance screening, before which I was required to sign a non-disclosure form that specifically prohibited online reviews.

Obviously I'm violating that agreement here. And I might feel bad about that -- nah, not really -- if I didn't enjoy the movie so much that I have only good things to say.

Anyway, sorry about this betrayal of trust, Warner Brothers.

And you're welcome!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 88/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 89/100

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Total Recall


Sometimes I am just at a loss.

Total Recall does absolutely everything right. And it’s terrible. And I don’t know why.

It is, of course, a remake of the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. That movie has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Aw heck, my tastes are so debauched, really it’s just a pleasure.

It follows the world’s greatest bodybuilder as everyman Doug Quaid, a working stiff on a future Earth which has a patriarchal relationship to its off-world colonies, notably the Martian one.

One day, ol’ Doug gives in to the advertisements and checks out Total Recall, a kind of travel agency which implants memories of an exotic experience in your mind at a fraction of the actual cost of that experience.

Quaid picks out the “secret agent on Mars” package, and gets his brain plugged into the machine.

But something goes wrong. The memory implant runs into trouble. It seems Quaid has already had a memory implant. His whole life is already fictitious!

Quaid gets dumped on the street by the panicky Recall folks, but sinister forces are already closing in; forces which fear Quaid now knows too much – about himself.

What follows is a swift-moving, often campy adventure that takes us inside Martian domes, into the red-light district of said domes – where we meet the world’s most memorable prostitute – and into the secret heart of the Martian rebellion.

Schwarzenegger is at his cheesy best, director Paul Verhoeven is still riding high from Robocop, and the script has one of my favorite lines from the era: “See you at the party, Richter!”

Despite all this, the movie is far from perfect. There’s a bunch of bad scenes, the setting is too cartoonish at times, and the underlying story is cool enough to achieve much more than the movie allows it.

What a PERFECT film to remake.


So now we have Colin Farrell as Doug Quaid, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsdale as dueling love interests, and Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston as evil corporate overlord Vilos Cohaagen.

The movie is directed by Len Wiseman of the competent Underworld movies, and he makes the decision to tweak the original, not overhaul  it. The reason I just encapsulated the plot of the Schwarzenegger movie is because every bit of it holds true for the remake. The new movie deviates from its source in only a few ways.

Richter of “See you at the party, Richter!” doesn’t exist in the new version. His role has been absorbed by Kate Beckinsdale, who is not just Quaid’s wife, but also, now, his hunter. Combining these characters is not a terrible idea.

There is no Mars in this new version. Instead, the rebellion exists outside the only remaining habitable territories in a post-apocalyptic Earth. This is intended to modernize the idea – post-apocalypses are all the rage now – but it doesn’t affect the story much. (Although it does eliminate another good line from the original: “Get your ass to Mars… get your ass to Mars… get your ass to Mars…”)

So the plot is the same, the actors are fine, the direction solid – I even approve of the basic concept: a slightly-more serious take on the mind-bending Phillip K. Dick source material – but somehow the new Total Recall is a sluggish, boring piece of generica.

I’m going to take a stab at an explanation, but it’s highly speculative, and I don't feel great about it.

Maybe this story can only flourish at the cheesy level on which it was originally executed. Maybe Schwarzenegger was perfectly cast, maybe a hungry, up-and-coming Sharon Stone was perfectly cast, maybe the aggressively overacting Ronny Cox as Cohaagen (“I wanted Hauser back, but noooooo! YOU had to be QUAID!”) and Michael Ironsides as “See you at the party, Richter!” were perfectly cast. Were any of these people good actors? No. But they were the right actors.

We just didn’t appreciate that at the time.

Sorry about that, folks!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 41/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 28/100

See you at the party, Richter!!!

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Well, we'll always have Batman Begins.
 
That first entry of the current Batman trilogy was fresh, fast-moving and, intricate as its plot certainly was, came together pretty nicely in the end.

Then we got The Dark Knight, the second installment, and the intricate plot spun out of control. There were scores of characters, subplots within subplots and, in the end, even a great performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker couldn't salvage a ludicrous third act which undermined everything that came before.

Now we have the oddly titled The Dark Knight Rises. It takes place a decade after the events of The Dark Knight, and introduces a Bruce Wayne hobbled by age and inactivity. He has long since retired from the crimefighting profession, and Gotham City, inspired by the posthumous radiance of the previous movie's Harvey Dent, knows peace and prosperity at last.

Enter the villain, Bane, a hulking, gas mask-wearing blackguard played by Tom Hardy. Bane has a dastardly plan to topple Gotham City by... well, it's not really clear what his plan is, possibly because it's so idiotic.

What happens is this: Bane collapses the field of a stadium hosting an NFL football game. This traps the entire city's police force, which Bane has lured into the tunnels underground. It also gives Bane a chance to broadcast his intentions to everyone watching the game. He has, according to his speech, placed a nuclear bomb somewhere within the city. He has given the bomb's only trigger to a common Gotham citizen, and that person will decide the fate of the city. No one can leave, because Bane has collapsed all the bridges leading into the city -- which resembled Chicago in the first movie, but now is clearly Manhattan.

Naturally, our boy Batman comes out of retirement to intervene. Unfortunately, he's lost his edge -- not unlike Rocky when he first fought Clubber Lang -- and he gets his back broken by the physically overpowering Bane.


Since this is a movie all about theme and not even a little about logic, Bane refrains from killing his defeated foe. Instead he transports him across the globe to a remote spot in Asia, where he casts Batman into the underground prison where Bane himself was born and raised. He intends Batman's spirit to also be broken in this hell beyond all hells.

Except it's not that bad a place. A couple of the inmates take care of Bruce Wayne pretty well. There seems to be plenty of food. They've even got cable TV!

But Bruce Wayne is freaked out because Gotham City is tearing itself apart in the five months that Bane holds it hostage.

You read that right. For five months, Bane prevents all travel to and from Manhattan by guarding the collapsed bridges and threatening any would-be rescuers with his nuclear bomb.

I'm pretty sure this is not how that hostage situation would play out -- it's also a terrible violation of the Aristotelian Unities -- but the logic holes are only part of the problem in The Dark Knight Rises. The bigger issues are that character motivations are unclear, narrative coherence and flow are disdained and, just like the previous movie, the metastasizing plot threads simply gobble up too much time for the story to advance in a satisfying way. As evidence I offer Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a proto-Robin. They haven't even entered my plot summary yet because I don't have fifty pages to get into it.

It's a shame these characters are so pointless, because Hathaway is really good as Catwoman. If only she'd had a legitimate place in the movie. Instead she intrudes on the ending, killing Bane with absurd ease, when that is clearly Batman's job.

Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt spends the film investigating Bane's plan and keeping hope alive during the siege, both of which are also clearly the responsibility of the Batman.

Ejected from the plot of his own movie, Batman has nothing to do but heal, and figure a way out of his underground prison. If he doesn't hurry, the movie will be over before he gets back to Gotham!

Not to fear, however, because the movie has a nearly three-hour running time.

The final battle transpires in the most obligatory fashion. It's just a lot punches and a lot of gunplay, without any art. In fact, none of the set-pieces in Rises are good, which lowers it from the bad-as-a-whole-but-good-in-places Dark Knight. (Remember when the semi-truck flipped end over end?)

And while the third act may not be as bad as its predecessor's, it sure ain't good. Batman ends up hoisting the nuclear bomb with his bat plane and flying it out to sea on a suicide mission to save Gotham.

Except it's NOT a suicide mission because Batman had repaired the auto-pilot function that Morgan Freeman had complained about earlier in the movie, in such a way that we absolutely knew it was going to factor into the ending.

Sadly, the Batman Cycle has been a descent from excellence to mediocrity to misery.

But at least this is the end. Director Chris Nolan has expressed no interest in doing a fourth Batman movie. Apparently he has other fictional worlds to mangle with his overly-complicated, under-developed screenplays.

It's smart to spread yourself around.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 31/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100