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