Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Grey

There was a really good article in the New York Times last week about a storytelling guru named Lindsay Doran who’s preaching a somewhat fresh take on making movies that resonate.

Her insight is that audiences care most about relationships, and the positive resolution of those relationships, not whether the main character achieves their stated goal.

I really love that phrase: “the positive resolution of relationships.” That truly is the magic nectar of good storytelling, isn’t it?

Casablanca is often cited for its bittersweet ending. Bogart loses Ingrid Bergman, but he resolves his relationship with her in the most positive way imaginable – “we’ll always have Paris” – and goes off to fight Nazis with his true soul mate, Claude Reins. That’s not a bittersweet ending. That’s a sweet-sweet ending. And it’s because all the relationships get tied up positively. All of them. The Nazi Colonel gets shot – I can hardly think of a more positive resolution for a Nazi – and even romantic rival Victor Laszlo shakes Bogie by the hand and declares, “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.” Woo hoo!

Bogie gets his bar taken from him, loses the love of his life and goes on the run as a fugitive behind enemy lines. And it’s the greatest ending of all time. “The positive resolution of relationships” indeed.

Which brings us to The Grey and that damned ending.

The Grey is a primal tale about man versus nature. It follows the grim adventures of Liam Neeson (character name irrelevant and undesirable; we paid for a Liam Neeson movie, dammit), a sniper who protects oil pipeline workers in the arctic from the predation of local wolves.

Neeson’s whole life is grey in the wake of his wife’s death, and he’s on the verge of suicide when his arctic tour expires and he’s sent home on a charter plane.

Well, almost sent home.

The plane crashes somewhere in the arctic waste, sparing only half a dozen of its passengers. Gathering survivors and assessing their situation is a task that must be quickly achieved, because there are wolves in these here parts, and they come calling sooooon.

Neeson has the greatest knowledge of wolves, so he’s the one who suggests abandoning the plane and making for a tree line in the distance, which will hopefully be a defensible position.

This strategy has its detractors, and leads to a struggle for dominance within the group that makes the six men resemble their adversaries quite closely.
But hey, Neeson is Neeson, and before long our guys are headed for those trees. The wolves follow along, and the rest of the movie consists of homo sapiens getting their asses handed to them by canis lupis.

All the way to the end, it’s good to be a wolf and bad to be a human. And that’s the problem with the movie. It eschews a Hollywood happy ending – and the usual Hollywood heroics throughout – in favor of a grim artsiness, but whatever was achieved by abandoning the standard ingenious-humans-dig-deep-and-beat-the-odds scenario feels lost in the end, when Neeson finds himself in the very den of the wolves, a place he can’t – and doesn’t – survive.

Presumably Neeson achieves some transcendent self-knowledge, and peace with the memory of his father (yeah, lots of dead family members intrude on the action) in his last few moments, but I don’t think this was worth two hours of feeling cold vicariously. And the reason I don’t think it was worth it is because it’s too self-directed. It’s all about Neeson, and not about his relationships with others.

If Neeson were with even a single companion, and they achieved an understanding of each other, or appreciation of each other, in the moments before their death, that might have made for a satisfying finale. No suspension of disbelief would be required, but at least we would feel that something worthwhile transpired onscreen.

Instead, we’re treated to the best day the wolves have had in years. It’s like a pizza party from the perspective of the pizza.

The Grey is what would probably happen if a group of guys were dropped into the arctic near the den of some ravenous wolves. But realism doesn’t necessarily illuminate, nor does it necessarily ennoble. What The Grey could have used is a little color.

Oh, that’s awful. I’ll change that ending next time I peruse these reviews.

I promise.


How Accomplished: 61/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 63/100

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This movie contributed to my recent hiatus from reviewing. I saw it weeks ago, but I didn’t know what to say about it.

And I still don’t.

The story is now so well-known I hesitate to even encapsulate it, but here goes:

Swedish journalist and social crusader Mychael Blomqvist gets summoned by a rich old man on a snowy island, who tasks him to discover who on the island killed the old man’s niece Harriet some twenty years ago. The old man is convinced the killer is still alive, and he suspects it is a member of his own extended family.

Blomqvist accepts the assignment because his own career is in jeopardy after making some powerful enemies. Over the course of the investigation he surprises himself by making a powerful friend: goth punk computer hacker and sexual abuse victim Lisbeth Salander. Together they hunt down a killer and learn that they really, really like each other.

This story works. It worked as a novel – smashingly well – it worked as a Swedish movie, and it works as an American movie.

But of the three, it works least well as an American movie.

I think it’s because the tone is fundamentally un-American: intelligent (ha!), brooding, pessimistic, and consumed with the smothering weight of the past.

The American movie closest in tone to Dragon Tattoo is Silence of the Lambs, but the differences are instructive. Silence was all about remaking oneself, turning a tragic past into a heroic present, and learning you have more in common with the worst serial killer in history than with your boss or your peers – and learning that such a similarity speaks pretty well of you.

“Oh Clarice, people will say we’re in love…”

Dragon Tattoo is a good story, but it’s not really our story, and even if you throw our best writer – Steven Zaillian – our best director – David Fincher – and one of our best musicians – Trent Reznor – at the project, it’s STILL not our story.

This is all a little airy, though.

Maybe the problem is that Rooney Mara, while good in the iconic role of Lisbeth Salander, isn’t pitch-perfect the way Swedish actress Noomi Rapace was. It’s hard to follow a performance like that a scant few years later.

Maybe the problem also lies with Fincher’s decision to extend the drama many minutes too long after the climactic death of the dreadful killer. The discovery of lost Harriet should fall fast after the killer’s death; it shouldn’t be its own mini-plot. There’s no more danger in the story, and thus no suspense.

No project in Hollywood looked like more of a sure thing than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo last year. Hottest property, brightest stars, studio backing… how could it go wrong? Yet it barely managed to cover its costs, and was shut out of every major Oscar category.

Sometimes a movie is too obvious, too straight a shot, too easy an accomplishment to be any good.

Art has to be hard.


How Accomplished: 71/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I saw this movie when it came out a month ago, and I’ve been struggling with the review ever since.

The problem stems partly from the fact that MI:GP is somewhere near the middle of the scale, neither remarkably good nor bad. That always makes it tough for me to psych myself up for a review. But the bigger problem is that MI:GP only barely qualifies as a movie at all. It’s more like a series of clever action shorts connected by quickly-spoken dialogue on fast-moving vehicles en route to our next location.

Here’s my take on the evolution of the franchise:

Mission Impossible 1 – the one where Jon Voight betrays Tom Cruise, forcing the MI team to break into CIA headquarters itself – was competent but utterly forgettable. It was directed by a Brian de Palma so desperate to earn one last studio check that he framed each shot with the predictability of a “directing for dummies” manual. The movie was a commercial success on the strength of efficient marketing. Which led us to…

Mission Impossible 2 – the one John Woo directed with his usual operatic absurdity. This is the one where it turns out everyone’s wearing extremely realistic masks, which they start yanking off in Act Three for a series of dramatic reversals. I think Tom Cruise was actually wearing two masks at one point. This was the worst movie of the year 2000.

Then along came Mission Impossible 3, and shockingly, it was pretty good. This is the one where Phillip Seymour Hoffman – an actual actor! – kidnaps Cruise’s wife and won’t give her back until Cruise steals and then delivers a mysterious doomsday device known only by its codename, “rabbit foot.” This is an actual bad guy plan! Hooray! I do not feel MI:3 got slighted by failing to win the Best Picture Oscar, but it had narrative logic, good pacing and flow, and even a couple relationships we could hang our emotional hats on. The movie was directed by JJ Abrams and was part of his ascent to the A-list, which he is currently defiling with films way worse than MI:3.

Now we’ve got Mission Impossible 4, directed by Brad Bird of Pixar fame. I’m a bit of an iconoclast on Pixar. I like all of their movies but love none of them. The Pixar writers room is a self-described “factory” where scripts are hammered into shape by thirty or forty very good writers. And the stories all feel that way. You have to be a team player to get along at Pixar, and Brad Bird is the teamiest of all the team players.

But don’t go looking for artistic vision from him. And especially don’t go looking in Mission Impossible 4.

Theoretically the movie is about “Ghost Protocol,” the last-resort disavowal of the entire mission impossible task force by the U.S. government itself in the event IMF does something very bad.

In this case, the entire Kremlin gets blown up while Tom Cruise and company are within a couple hundred feet of the place. They get blamed by the Russians and disavowed by the U.S. Just like that, IMF doesn’t exist. Cruise and company – british comedian Simon Pegg, American beauty Paula Patton and the next Jason Bourne, Jeremy Renner – must band together to clear their names and restore the IMF to the world’s good graces.

How do they do this? Oh heck, I don’t know. There IS no real story in Mission Impossible 4. I’ve just described the set-up, but everything that follows should be described in terms of its accomplishments in the art of stuntwork and pyrotechnics, not the development of story.

I’ll take a stab at the story anyway:

Someone’s got a satellite that controls some nuclear missiles, which may have to be shot down with a laser, but the good guys have to get the override codes for the laser, and they have to pay for the codes with stolen diamonds, but there have to be some glass diamonds to fool the other people trying to get the codes, but once the other people get the codes anyway, the good guys have to chase them into a sandstorm, where they discover the bad guy was wearing a mask all along…

As you can tell, I have no clear idea what happened in Mission Impossible 4 or why. And I like action movies.

The reason I don’t hate this movie is that narrative clarity isn’t the only virtue a movie can have. There’s also those stunts and pyrotechnics. In MI:4, they’re excellent, especially the deservedly talked-about “spiderman” sequence, where Cruise climbs the side of a Dubai skyscraper wearing a pair of electronic sticky gloves that start to malfunction at a very inconvenient time.

The movie is loud, swift and sleek. It’s not very good, but it’s not very bad. It does pull off the trick Hollywood has been trying to manage for a century – the trick of making an enjoyable movie without a story – but it does so on a technicality, since it’s only barely enjoyable.

And man is it tough to review!


How Accomplished: 58/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 56/100