Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tub to the Future: HOT TUB TIME MACHINE

Hot Tub Time Machine has a great title. It’s short and silly; gleefully direct and goofy. If only the movie that appears after the title were possessed with similar qualities. The movie never rises to the level of the title. Or should that be lowers? Instead, the movie is a slog of manic vulgarity pitched at the same shrieking level for the entire run time. There’s little modulation to be found.

But it sure starts promisingly enough. Three middle-aged men are fed-up with their sad lives. John Cusack was dumped, Craig Robinson works at a salon for dogs, and Rob Corddry just tried to commit suicide. To try to cheer themselves up, they go away for a weekend at a ski resort that was the site of good times back when they were in their late-teens and early-twenties. Cusack has to bring his nephew, Clark Duke, along for the trip, promising him a great time. Too bad the kid would rather be playing “Second Life.” They’re all pretty depressed, a situation that isn’t helped by the decrepitude of the resort’s current state. Before you know it, their suite’s hot tub lights up with a seductive glow and burbles with suspicious bubbles. They hop in and whoosh! It’s 1986!

The movie is content to run through a typical time-travel plot, complete with paradoxes and culture-clashes, and even has a wizened, though very vague, Doc Brown figure played by Chevy Chase who pops up from time to time to deliver oddball exposition. Contributing to the 80’s vibe is Crispin Glover as the bellhop. Luckily, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously; it’s content to wallow in the traditional trappings of a middling 80’s comedy. Unluckily, this means the (hopefully) ironic sexism and homophobia piles up until it starts to feel like the real thing. I did laugh, though, at the name of the pompous preppie who bullies the leads. Is there a more 80’s-sounding villain-name than Blaine?

The movie is essentially a whirlwind of pop-culture references and very gross gross-out gags. Director Steve Pink keeps things fast, goofy, and totally undisciplined, but the jokes just aren’t funny. It’s not really the cast’s fault. Cusack’s appealing, Duke does his best, and Robinson’s quietly hilarious. Corddry’s ultimately grating (he leaves no line un-shouted), but that’s just an example of poor direction. The main buzz-kill is the script, attributed to Josh Heald, Sean Anders, and John Morris. They came up with a great idea, but not enough details to fill it in. It’s a pile-up of desperate attempts at humor that clogs up the path of the genuinely funny moments.

I wanted to like the movie, I really did, and I would be dishonest if I sat here and wrote that I never laughed. The movie has some fun moments here and there – a cute visual echo of Sixteen Candles famous kitchen-table kiss, a funny twist on Back to the Future’s “Johnny B. Goode” sequence that substitutes Chuck Berry with the Black-Eyed Peas – but as an entire experience, the movie just falls flat.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Training Day: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

How to Train Your Dragon is a well-crafted and memorable computer-animated film. It has likable characters, crisp dialogue, and smooth, detailed, expressive animation. It has a rousing score and great widescreen compositions. It’s exciting and more than a little moving. I was pleasantly surprised. The film comes from Dreamworks Animation, but the creators are Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who created Lilo and Stitch, the last genuinely great film to come out of Disney Animation. They bring with them all of the above, but also a deep sense of story and character that finds no need for pointless celebrity gimmickry or in-jokes laced with quickly dated references, the symptoms that have plagued most of Dreamworks’s prior output.

The plot feels familiar. In the past ten or fifteen years, nearly every animation studio has put out an epic adventure-comedy about an outcast young person whose unappreciated talent just might end up saving his community. That’s Disney’s Hercules, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, Warner Brother’s Happy Feet, Sony’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and even Dreamworks’s own Kung Fu Panda. But what Sanders and DeBlois bring to this formula is energy and passion, resulting in a telling that feels so expertly realized that it becomes the kind of filmmaking that follows formula without ever once feeling stale.

Besides, the world the filmmakers create is interesting and fun all on its own. It’s hundreds and hundreds of years ago in an unspecified place and time in a Viking village that has a problem with big pests that carry off sheep and burn down buildings in the middle of the night. Those pests just happen to be dragons. The whole village trains to fight the beasts which flap their way out of the darkness on still and quiet nights. This feels like a fully realized fantasy setting, not just something slapped together out of spare parts.

The leader of the village is the most fearsome dragon-killer (Gerard Butler), but is ashamed of his wimpy son (Jay Baruchel), a weak Viking who is constantly building contraptions. The son is sent to dragon training with the other young people, including the cutie (America Ferrera) he has a crush on. The group of youngsters is led through training by a tough old dragon-fighter (Craig Ferguson) who has a peg-leg and hook-hand to show for his many years of experience. But the son has a secret. One night, he shot down a rare breed of dragon and has been visiting the creature in the forest. It has broken its tail so it can’t fly away. The two of them form a bond, with the son helping the dragon back into the air, and the dragon helping the son learn about dragons. The animation with the dragon is expertly handled. There is no dialogue; the creature remains an animal. All emotion and expression comes through with body language and the eyes. When the dragon finally takes flight, there are several scenes of stunning flight so perfectly realized that I felt like I was flying right along with them. This is a tender and well-told story of emotional interaction between man and beast.

The film leads, as it must, to an epic confrontation with revealed secrets, strong declarations, abrupt changes-of-heart, and fulfillment of romantic subplots all leading up to a huge battle against the true villain. But to say it in that way is to make it sound boring or unexciting. That’s just not the case here. The action is lots of fun; it’s incredibly energetic and well-staged with a great sense of space and energy. The gorgeous animation puts stunning images on screen, not just in terms of detail, but in composition and framing as well. I wasn’t even bothered by the 3D. It seems to work well, and I write that as someone who is still a firm septic when it comes to the longevity or usefulness of the gimmick. The 3D here shames even the much-hyped technique in Avatar in effortlessness and usefulness. It never once pulled me out of the experience.

This extends to the rest of the film as well. It’s an exciting, fast-paced and absorbing story. The voice acting is superb across the board. The actors give soulful, heartfelt performances that are matched by the performances the animators give in bringing them to life. The movie doesn’t quite generate the same emotional wallop that Pixar has become so good at, nor do all the supporting characters add up to much more than scenery. But this is still a very strong effort, high quality all the way. The film is a total delight from beginning to end.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Time Flies

Has it been one year already? One year ago today, I started posting as The Voracious Filmgoer, promising myself to write about a minimum of one film a week. If you look at the review archive, you'll notice well over 52 titles, so I would have to say that my goals have been met. As I write this, I have a handful of reviews in progress and plan to continue seeing movies as often as I can, and as often as money reasonably allows. While I don't have time to write about every film I see, I will try to keep up with major new releases as I have done for a whole year now.

These are uncertain times for criticism, but as long as people care about thinking and engaging with art, it will survive. As long as criticism is seen as honest dialogue and not pointless sniping, it will survive.

This blog shall continue into the future. Even though my base of readers is small, a big thanks has to go to each and every one of you. I hope you will continue with TVF and help make the second year at least as rewarding as the first.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Wimpy Years: DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

Too often, a family film can easily become toothless and lazy in a race to get to the lowest-common inoffensive denominator, so it’s heartening to see a family film that is not only trying, but excelling at being a fairly perceptive comedy about children. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is not dumb, it’s not safe, and it’s not stretching to include covertly adult humor to please parents. It simply tells a story at a child’s level and trusts the audience of kids and adults alike to relate to experiences that are, at some level, universal. My middle-school was not exactly like the one presented here, but the feelings were the same. Something about the combination of childhood whims and inconsistently aging peers creates a cauldron of awkwardness that manages to churn in similar ways generation after generation.

The movie is based on the first book in a series by Jeff Kinney. The books are absolutely charming, combining first-person diary entries with sweet and simple line drawings to tell the story of Greg Heffley, a boy starting sixth grade. They’re anecdotal and conversational, loosely plotted in an almost stream-of-consciousness style with an unrestricted, but highly subjective narrative that can sail backwards and forwards through fact and fantasy. It’s a small wonder of smart and sophisticated writing from a child’s point of view. It’s not weighty or dark, but rather a light and enjoyable lark. The movie gets the tone just about right, even going so far as to throw in little animated doodles and a narrating Greg in a kind of meta move that’s reasonably satisfying.

Greg is played by Zachary Gordon, a child actor in his first big role. He plays the character perfectly, with the kind of self-centered attitude, casual bouts of shallowness and wild inventiveness that, if he were older, would be considered slightly smug. At 12, though, he’s still immensely loveable, even when he’s making mischief. He’s struggling to fit in throughout the movie that shares the loose and episodic nature of the books. He’s conflicted most about his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), who is increasingly looking like a detriment to Greg’s ambitions of becoming more popular. After all, Rowley still invites people to “play” instead of “hang out.” Greg’s older brother (Devon Bostick) gives him the dubious advice to ditch the friend if he ever wants to survive sixth grade.

It’s that quest to become more popular that loosely strings the anecdotes together. Greg moves through his first year of middle school running into all kinds of characters who could easily become stereotypes, and indeed are presented as exaggerated, but keep in mind that we have an unreliable narrator and, besides, most characters are sketched in such a way that they vaguely reminded me of types of kids and teachers that I knew at that age. There’s the smallest kid in school, the stuck-up overachiever with family connections, the smart, the talented, the weird, the moronic, the appealing, the gross, not to mention the teachers who run the gamut from lazy to self-serving and pompous to casual. It all seems just about right.

This is a film of spirited performances (his parents, Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris, are especially enjoyable, as is Chloe Moretz as a too-cool-for-school seventh-grader) and lots of energy. It’s fast, light, and an enjoyably sweet delight, even though it does have two or three too many gross-out gags. Director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) does an admirable job keeping the movie from dragging too much and has a deft way of making the children’s performances pop just as much as the adults'. This is a consistent movie; it all feels of one piece. It’s not a movie of high highs or low lows, but it’s pitched at a level of even-keeled enjoyment that accumulates into something special.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeal! It's NEW MOON!

There’s a moment late in New Moon, the second movie in the wildly popular Twilight series, when Bella Swan, our protagonist-of-sorts, is confronted by an evil vampire who attempts to read her mind to see if she has a special power that makes her invulnerable to vampire E.S.P. He gives it a go and then pulls away from her, clearly disappointed. “I sense nothing,” he says. I thought: that’s about right. I wouldn’t be so quick to decide you can’t read her mind if I were you, Mr. Vampire.

Bella’s a weak character precisely because she appears to be a very unthinking person. This goes beyond just simple teenage feelings of invulnerability or hubris. She simply hasn’t a thought in her head. She’s a weak person who falls easily under the spell of strong, dangerous males and is quick to mistake simple lust for everlasting love. This, or rather the glorification of this, can be seen as incredibly irresponsible, especially in light of the masses of tween and teen girls that adore the series, since girls like Bella in the real world can, and sometimes do, fall into abusive relationships. A real abusive boyfriend is much more terrifying than any supernatural force.

It’s this squirmy undercurrent to the plot that is most responsible for sinking Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 adaptation of Twilight. Though, to be fair, Stephenie Meyer’s horrible writing doesn’t inspire great filmmaking all on its own. Even so, that’s no excuse for Hardwicke’s strange choices in hokey special effects and inflated reverence, not to mention her apparent inability to direct actors or sustain a tone. I would be surprised if she had cut anything from the film for being too cheesy. The movie’s a bit of a drag as it spends vast portions of the movie introducing us to Bella, a wholly uninteresting protagonist, and Edward, a vampire whose primary characteristic is his ability to look handsome. There’s not a lot going on here and, although Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have some degree of talent, there’s not a lot to the characters to get an uninitiated audience excited. The movie asks you to buy a deep love between the two that just doesn’t seem to be there. She pushes her hair back. He says he needs to control himself so he doesn’t bite her. She wants to be a vampire so she can be with him forever. He says no. Repeat. There’s just not enough meaningful conflict happening here.

To my surprise, director Chris Weitz, taking the reins of the franchise for New Moon, seems to recognize the fundamental lack of energy in the plot handed down by Meyer. He’s still fairly reverential to the source material, bringing along all its problems. Despite expanding the plot to include a pack of werewolves to counterbalance the vampires, with whom they have a nasty, centuries-old feud, the events and ideas presented simply don’t live up to their potential. Instead, we find that Jacob, a nice Native American kid with a small role in the first film, is falling in love with Bella. Taylor Lautner plays Jacob, and he’s more than capable of filling a third corner in a developing love triangle. He’s so good, actually, you wonder why Bella would want to stay with the icy, controlling, emotionally abusive vampire when she could have a warm, caring, doting werewolf? After all, Edward jets off in the first reel and doesn’t show up again until the climax. (Does this make me a member of Team Jacob? I’m not clear on the specifics of these things).

Weitz manages to bring this conflict to a bit of a sizzle through sheer filmmaking alone. He almost overcomes the weak material by bringing in Javier Aguirresarobe, of such films as Talk to Her and The Others, as cinematographer, and the great Alexandre Desplat as composer. These two gentlemen are at the height of their powers here. By not condescending to the material and instead doing some of their best work, they help the movie not feel so cheap. The movie looks and sounds rich and sumptuous; the colors are deep and warm, the string section soars. This isn’t the dishwater palate of the first film. Here is a movie that looks romantic and lush, even if the plot isn’t always as convincing in that aspect. And even though we get plenty of slow-motion moments featuring a character moving closer to the camera, all the better for the 12-year-old girls to swoon, it’s not a technique that’s gets overused. I was reminded of the short pauses for laughter that can be spotted in Marx Brothers’ movies.

The plot’s still mostly a drag with effectively nothing happening for most of the second act, but at least we have fun supporting actors like Anna Kendrick and Billy Burke to liven things up. Weitz and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have tried their hardest to keep things moving with a chase here, a stalking there, a near-death experience here, a funny interlude there. Mostly, though, it’s just our characters sitting around talking about immortal rules and mortal emotions. It’s amazing so much time can be spent on characterization and yet we still end up with pretty flat characters. And yet, Chris Weitz’s New Moon does something that Meyer couldn’t do, no matter how many pounds of terrible prose she expends. This movie occasionally generates a sense of rushing teenage emotion, strong and nonsensical, the headlong crash of a crush and the first sparks of attraction. Maybe later on in the franchise (I stopped reading after the second book) we’ll have to accept that True Love has developed. For now, this is almost good enough.

The movie really picks up speed with an ending that is actually kind of fun. We go to meet some of the Volturi, a clan of vampires that, in these movies’ mythology, rule all the vampires in the world. Played by grade-A actors like Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning, they, for lack of a better term, vamp it up wonderfully. They’re at once funny and menacing, no small feat. I enjoyed their contributions so much, with their dry line readings, billowing black cloaks, and piercing red eyes, that they very nearly pushed the movie into solid recommendation territory. But they aren’t in the movie for long enough. Their screen time is probably only 15 to 20 minutes (if that) of this over-two-hours production.

There are plenty of people who care very deeply about these Twilight books and movies. On the one hand, I’m glad they’re excited about something. On the other hand, I’m disappointed so many seem to be missing the uncomfortable, fairly silly, and potentially dangerous, undercurrents of the story. And yet, I have to admit I was kind of captured by this movie at times, enjoying supporting performances and adoring the style and score. I would never say that it’s a good movie, but I would say it’s a watchable, even at times enjoyable, movie. Unless you have already completely lost yourself in fandom for the series, the less seriously you take it (you hear that, vampire geeks and werewolf nerds?*) the more fun you will have.

*I say this lovingly.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quick Look: Broken Embraces (2009)
















I adore the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Aside from making a handful of justifiable masterpieces and earning his spot as one of the major figures in world cinema, he’s a master of melodrama, able to whip up a frothy delight and make it sizzle with deep emotion and vibrant color. Why, then, was I so quickly bored by Broken Embraces? It has an intriguing plot about a blind screenwriter whose past secrets start bubbling up inconveniently into his present. We get all kinds of flashbacks and films-within-films and surveillance and deceit and sex and romance and unknown parentage and a car crash and an impeccably shot tumble down a flight of stairs. It’s filled with incredible colors and patterns; in one scene I found myself staring at a set of curtains, the hue and floral prints so intense and striking that it was boggling my mind. It has incredible performances from Lluís Homar (as the aforementioned blind screenwriter) and Penélope Cruz, the lovers, or would-be lovers, at the center of some of the potentially torrid mystery. I also enjoyed the presence of Tamar Novas and Blanca Portillo, as a son and his mother who help the blind man continue his work. There are a few great scenes and a handful of good ones, but the film quickly grew stale for me. For all its outward pleasures, the narrative felt slack, the story was just not as engaging as I expect from Almodóvar. As it moves back into its lengthy flashbacks and endless exposition, I found I didn’t particularly care how the story would unravel or how the mysteries would be solved. It’s a shiny bauble, but a hollow one. It looks great, but I was disappointed I could not engage more with the story. It simply doesn’t sizzle like it should.

Quick Look: Bandslam (2009)

Bandslam doesn’t have much reason to recommend it, but at least it has little reason to be avoided. It’s mushy and harmless, soft, and agreeably peppy. Though director Todd Graff’s and Josh A. Cagan’s screenpaly has problems with pacing and tone, and runs entirely too long, it is performed by a likable young cast (including the relatively unknown Gaelan Connell and two Disney Channel alums, Vanessa Hudgens and Alyson Michalka) who adequately fill a very familiar underdog arc; this time it’s a group of teens who pull together to, gosh darn it, win a record deal in a local contest. (Though, if we’re supposed to cheer for their victory, maybe their band could be a little better?) The movie’s oddly burdened with a strange set of weightier material, including a secret tragedy from the past, that doesn’t quite fit with the gently enjoyable nature of the rest of the film. But the tricky material is nonetheless handled quite well, with great tact and care as the characters are all treated with sympathy and respect. They’re even allowed to be visibly human at times. This is a mostly squeaky-clean family dramedy, but it’s not painfully sugar-coated or unnaturally divorced from the real world. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking in any way, and it’s certainly not any better than it needs to be, but for what it is, it’s not all bad. It even has one aspect genuinely approaching excellence, the biggest asset the movie has: Lisa Kudrow. She turns in a genuinely touching portrait of a fully believable single mom. She’s underused with a character that’s undeveloped, but Kudrow makes the most of every little scene she gets.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quick Look: Armored (2009)

Armored flew under the radar last December, quickly and unsurprisingly pushed there by the annual collection of high-profile holiday releases, which is unfortunate since it’s well worth discovering. It’s essentially a heist movie, following a team of armored truck drivers who plan to fake a hijacking and robbery, hide the money, and then double back later to pick it up and share the wealth. These are blue-collar workers struggling to make ends meet, a demographic often not the center of a Hollywood production, even one as low-profile as this. It’s a great, macho ensemble, starting with our central character, played by Columbus Short. His character is a young bundle of anxiety due to the recent deaths of his parents leaving him with custody of his teenage brother. We follow him, learn to care about him, meet the rest of the ensemble through him. There’s Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, Skeet Ulrich, Amaury Noalsco, and Milo Ventimiglia. They’re all tough, all determined, and yet they have distinct personalities that develop and grow throughout the film. They’re defined as much, if not more, by what they do as what they say.  When the heist doesn’t go according to plan, it turns into a sort of morality play via a ticking-clock thriller. The bulk of the movie takes place in a grim abandoned factory, a setting of inherent danger enhanced by the men’s fear of being caught at any minute. Think of it as 12 Angry Men with the jurors’ lives at stake. The characters are well-drawn; the goals of the plot are clear with a plan that must be executed within certain time constraints. This is a tightly constructed, purely solid suspenseful movie, wasting almost no time at all before plunging the audience into well-staged and bluntly-effective sequences. Directed with considerable skill by Nimród Antal, from a tight script by James V. Simpson, this is a pleasingly slick, and wholly unpretentious, example of a modern day B-movie aesthetic, with perfectly grimy set design and exciting intensity in the performances. It’s nothing more and nothing less than a fun time at the movies.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Not a Big Splash: SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE

She’s Out of My League is a thoroughly ordinary romantic comedy. It appears to be slanted more towards a male audience than is usually expected from this type of bland outing, but aside from that it offers up very few surprises. It’s comfortably helmed by Jim Field Smith in an unmemorable way. It has pounding pop songs, slick photography, and a photogenic cast. It even has a few jokes, or at least some mildly amusing moments where other, better comedies put their jokes.

Longtime second-banana Jay Baruchel, from Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder to name a few, becomes the lead-banana in a movie of his very own. He stars as the kind of guy whose old girlfriend (Lindsay Sloane) still gets invitations from his parents to join them for dinner or to go on family trips. She can even bring her new boyfriend along. Don’t we all know someone like that?

Anyways, this guy works at an airport doing his part to keep America safe by inspecting each passenger that moves through his security station. One passenger he doesn’t mind inspecting is a woman (Alice Eve) so attractive that we get a slow motion montage of drooling, wide-eyed men as she moves on her way to catch her flight. She loses her cell phone. He finds it, but she’s already airborne. They decide to meet (meet cute) when she gets back in town so he can return it to her.

So, they start dating, right? But all this guy’s friends (T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, and Nate Torrence) say things like “Hey, dude! She’s hot! You’re a 5! She’s a 10! This can’t work out!” or variations thereof for, like, the next 40 minutes. Then, well, you’ve probably seen a few romantic comedies before, so you can probably guess what happens. You know, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etcetera.

This is an acceptably standard rom-com and when so many in the genre can’t even pull that off, it’s some small accomplishment. Then again, “Not Painful!” is not exactly something that can be slapped on an ad in the paper. There’s some nice chemistry between the cast, even though the gaggle of babbling dudes plays like hand-me-down Apatow and the Perfect 10 remains too distant and idealized, so much so that a chance for emotional connection to these people is allowed to escape. It also doesn’t help that the movie plays like a gentle PG-13 forced into an uncomfortably fitting R, which also does nothing to stem the undercurrent of cruelty in the presentation of the protagonist’s family and ex-girlfriend, who are played as rude and ridiculously over-the-top idiots at a level that seems out of context with the rest of the movie.

The movie never becomes a dull dance of numerology, but it never quite becomes a satisfying romantic comedy, either. I didn’t have a bad time watching it. I smiled from time to time, I even managed a few chuckles, but as I left the theater the movie threatened to leave my mind. I kept it in my thoughts long enough to type out this written equivalent of a shrug, but I’ll let it go now. One day, a few years from now, I’ll be channel surfing and spot it and think: what’s this? That’s right, I think I saw that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Zoned Out: GREEN ZONE

For the second week in a row I found myself watching a highly-anticipated big-budget film from a director I quite like and, also for the second week in a row, I found myself enjoying the movie in theory, and in parts, but never as a whole experience. The films couldn't be more different, but I had more or less the same experience with Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone that I did with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. In each case, after the film ended I kept turning it over and over in my head. All the pieces were there for a good movie and, indeed, I found myself entertained from time to time, and yet I still left the theater with the dull ache of disappointment and ambivalence.

Maybe it’s because Green Zone wants to have its cake and eat it too. It’s an Iraq War movie based on real events immediately following the invasion in 2003, documented in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's great book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, yet it’s perched on the border between docudrama and actioner. In theory, it’s the perfect mix between two of Greengrass’s best films to date – the slam-bang wall-to-wall thrills of The Bourne Ultimatum and the gritty fly-on-the-wall history of United 93 – brought together with the commonality of the frenzied intensified continuity of his shaky-cam style. And yet it turns out that it’s just as unhelpful to burden a docudrama with pumped-up action beats as it is to make a straightforward action flick barrel through large swaths of exposition and context. It’s a volatile mix.

The film centers on a tough and loyal soldier played by Matt Damon. He’s a smart, perceptive, quick-thinking man of action, but he asks more questions than would make his superiors comfortable, questions like “Why is the intelligence wrong?” and “Where are the WMDs?” He’s obviously a composite character, a necessary compression of the facts in order for the film to be a traditional action-thriller with one central hero we can track throughout. This would be more agreeable if Damon had more of a character to play. The characterization is thin, very thin. He’s a type, not a person. The same goes for the uniformly impressive supporting cast from Brendan Gleeson as a crusty, infallible CIA agent, to Amy Ryan as a duped reporter whose articles helped in the lead up to war, to Greg Kinnear as a slimy stooge of the Bush administration, to Igal Naor as an Iraqi general. No matter how good these actors are at fleshing in small bits of character with very little help from Brian Helgevand’s screenplay, and they are fairly good, it still plays thinly on screen.

But you’d be surprised (or maybe not) how far a film can get on pure outrage alone. The film taps into a deep vein of dissatisfaction and discouragement about this current conflict. It feels a little too late for such a powerful statement though, and cutting corners on the facts does the heavy-handed message no favors even if you, like me, agree with the sentiment of what’s being presented. What would have felt radical a few years ago now feels much more commonly accepted. Just three years ago, the excellent documentary No End in Sight did a great job of swiftly, clearly, methodically, and powerfully laying out the long string of mistakes and the culture of single-minded denial that followed the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, but in that case there was time to focus on that alone. Green Zone, on the other hand, needs to explain a great deal of history and context just to use it as a backdrop for chases, shootouts, and simmering tensions. It can be done, but not here. The film’s not quite up to that task.

Too often, the film plays like what a nightmare Hollywood version of The Hurt Locker would have been, and yet that film was great precisely because it reflected politics, presenting it through personal experiences of its characters and the understandings of the audience. Here, the politics are the experience, and the film can’t figure out the right balance of character and context. Most unfortunately, its message ends up seeming cheapened and convenient, even as the film throws veracity to the wind for a pat, though undeniably thrilling, action-packed climax.

And yet, (this is the kind of film that inspires a lot of “and yet”s) the true story of the WMDs is to this day still so murky and unclear, and there are so many who are still buying what the Bush administration sold on that topic, and no one real villain or sense of closure has yet to arise, the movie’s murky outrage and hazy factuality, and ultimately unsatisfying effect, can be seen as an odd commitment to the way this conflict did, and continues to, play out. Even though I can intellectualize that, it still does nothing to ease my dissatisfaction. For all its impressively mounted action, for all of its excellent actors, for all of its political tension, for all of its politics that I agree with, I still left the theater feeling disappointed.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser: Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Over the years, Tim Burton has proven himself to be a master of whimsically ghoulish imagery, but he has also proven to not always match his visuals to an equally inspired plot. When he’s at his best his style and content are fused and focused, honed in on the particular obsessions of the film’s protagonist, for nearly all Burton protagonists are haunted and fascinated, attracted and repulsed, by a certain object or concept that drives their goals in tangible ways. This can be seen starting with his first feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which finds Pee-Wee Herman tracking down his stolen bike, and continuing with Beetlejuice, which has Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as ghostly homeowners. You can trace this feature through all of Burton’s best work: from Edward and his Scissorhands to Ed Wood and his filmmaking and cross dressing, from Ed Bloom's tall tales to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory to Sweeney Todd’s revenge with bloody barber’s blades. When there is less of a clear focus on characters and their possessions, Burton seems to lose focus as well. When that happens, despite retaining great, inventive imagery, the films grow manic and inconsistent. That’s the case in Mars Attacks!, a scattershot B-movie send up that is fun at times but ultimately a mess. Unfortunately the same can be said about his latest film, Alice in Wonderland.

It’s an oft adapted tale originating in the late 1800s with Lewis Carroll’s books about a little girl that falls down the rabbit hole, but Burton, working with screenwriter Linda Woolverton, have staked out new ground for themselves that separates their adaptation from all those of the past. This film is pitched as a sequel (of sorts) to the original story, with a 20-year-old Alice believing her earlier time in Wonderland was a dream. As the film opens on a stuffy Victorian life, we find her on the verge of getting a marriage proposal from a sniveling twit. Alice is simply too graceful, too imaginative, too modern for the times. She fits the Burton hero type very well, a discontented misfit with pale skin and dark eyes. As played well by Mia Wasikowska, the early scenes establish an interesting different take on Alice, one with interesting feminist implications, that the film decides to drop as soon, and as quickly, as she falls down the rabbit hole chasing that waist-coat clad, pocket-watch wielding creature.

Upon landing in Wonderland, which is appreciably more post-apocalyptic than any prior incarnation, Alice promptly becomes a pawn in an elaborate, yet charmingly disproportionate, fantasy world. She fades into the background of her own story as we are given a parade of characters and events that make only small impacts that never add up to a bigger one. Besides, Burton seems much more fascinated with the characters played by his regular actors Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

As the Mad Hatter, Depp takes risks with his performance, slipping in and out of a murderously gravely Scottish brogue while the rest of his lines come out in a whispery, giggly, high-pitched lisp. His eyes are oddly cold, yet always moving, staring out from underneath a coat of sickly clown makeup and frizzy hair the color of rotten carrots. It almost works, but falls flat simply because there’s no character under the shtick. He’s out on a limb with no support from the script.

Carter, on the other hand, is a whirlwind scene-stealer as the Red Queen, playing her as a whiny, stunted monarch, managing to make a shout of “Off with his head!” ring with shifty insecurity and deadly impulsiveness. She’s warped with special effects to have a big head that is quite literal, balancing on a too-thin neck. She’s part fairy-tale villain, part spoiled brat, part demonic bobblehead. Carter marches through the film, chewing scenery, spitting out her lines, and overshadowing everyone. She’s clearly having a great time and it’s infectious.

The other characters are a mish-mash of the familiar and the unknown who all coalesce around a plot that becomes a fairly standard fantasy-quest story that involves recruiting Alice to find a sword and slay the Jabberwocky to restore peace in the fantasy world. Various creatures with the voices of British character actors show up including a delightful Stephen Fry Chesire Cat, squashy Matt Lucas Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and a smoking caterpillar with too few lines for being voiced by the always excellent Alan Rickman. Live action Anne Hathaway shows up as a pearly-white Gothic good girl whose hands seem to float about on their own accord. Also live action, and wholly welcome, is the reliably odd Crispin Glover as a glowering henchman of the Red Queen, digitally stretched in an oddly disorienting and heightened way.

There are fun moments and memorable images to be found throughout these characters’ interactions and the quest’s progression. I loved the look of the Red Queen and her castle, from the gulping frog butlers, the chandelier held by birds, the table held by monkeys, and the pig ottomans, all the way down to the small heart drawn in lipstick on her cold, grey lips. I especially enjoyed the shivery gross-out moat filled with the proof of her love for beheadings. The story moves along quickly and goes down without complication, but unfortunately the movie never quite fits together. It’s bewitching, bothersome, and bewildering.

About three-fourths of the way through the film, I found myself realizing that the movie just wouldn’t resolve satisfactorily. The movie’s simply too manic, too frantic, too eager to show the next cool-looking thingamabob. Too many strands and plot attempts formulate for the movie to conclude simply, and so maybe it’s to the movie’s benefit that it doesn’t try. There seems to be a reluctance for the thing to end at all given the circuitous route to the fairly rote big battle that’s both unneeded and uncommitted. If Burton and Woolverton really wanted to go there, it needn’t be so wishy-washy and over almost before it begins, especially since we’ve known what’s coming since we were shown a scroll that predicts the future very early on.

And yet, all of this wouldn’t matter so much if the dreamy nightmare world of Alice’s weren’t so completely disconnected from the framing device of stifling Victorianism. I would have liked to see her experiences in phantasmagoric confusion relate to some kind of arc or voyage of self-discovery. Instead, Alice starts the film fully formed, experiences some weird stuff, and then ends the film slightly more bold. There’s no sense of any real psychological or emotional stakes. As fantastic as the film is to look at, and as much as it did at times sweep me away in wonderment, it’s simply too hollow and messy to form a cohesive experience.


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