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