Sunday, May 30, 2010

Shrek Everlasting: SHREK FOREVER AFTER

All the more disappointing for arriving just two months after How to Train Your Dragon, which soars much higher than any other product every created by Dreamworks Animation, Shrek Forever After is nothing more than a 90-minute curtain call. It’s a joyless exercise in giving a once-promising franchise even less of a reason to exist. Ah, but back in 2001 – nearly a decade, if you can believe it – Shrek seemed so fresh, though computer animation was much younger then, as was I.

Shrek, the story of a giant green ogre (Mike Myers) and his fairy-tale world, is snarky and a little mean, loaded down with instantly out-of-date pop culture references, but I love the way it starts out as a rebuke of the classic fairy tale arcs only to end up conforming to them. Shrek 2, which came along in 2004, is even better. It’s faster, funnier, denser with gags and more ridiculously sublime. With Shrek the Third in 2007, franchise rot began to creep into the foundations. The movie wheezes and creaks more than its predecessors as it pushes a perilously thin plot through a small deficit of jokes. It kind of works, but it’s dangerously close to the edge that the fourth installment tumbles over.

With Shrek Forever After, we’ve left humor and wit far, far behind, along with any reason to care. After all, this is a film with stakes so high that Shrek could not only die, but he could never have existed in the first place. (The plot involves some crazy Rumpelstiltskin scheme that creates an alternate universe wherein Shrek was never born). Despite all that danger to these beloved characters, I simply didn’t care.

Oh, sure, the movie’s animated at the level of quality we’ve come to expect. The voice work from returning cast members Cameron Diaz (as the princess), Eddie Murphy (as the donkey), and Antonio Banderas (as Puss in Boots) is competent. The whole enterprise moves along at a good clip. Missing are invention, joy, and novelty. By now, I’ve seen these characters traipse through so many plots and speak so much banter and snap out so many one-liners that a little more effort is needed to engage me. As appealing as these characters are, they’re no Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. And even those beloved characters were given a variety of things to do in their classic shorts. To watch this fourth Shrek film feels like watching a retread of a retread.

The end credits roll over a selection of clips and images from the previous three films. I suppose it should be a schmaltzy goodbye to a middling-to-good franchise. Instead, it merely points out all the more starkly how better the early films were, and how the series is now twice as long as it should be. The whole thing just made me wish I’d stayed home and rewatched Shrek 2 instead.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Quick Look: MACGRUBER












In painfully unfunny, and mercifully brief, skits on Saturday Night Live, Will Forte plays MacGruber, an incompetent hero with overconfidence and an easily distractible disposition. The short scenes involving frantic attempts to diffuse a bomb play out in interchangeable bunkers that will unfailingly, as the final punchline, explode. Now, in the first SNL film in nearly a decade, MacGruber, while dramatically increasing the crudeness and violence of the skits, creates a loud, specific parody of loud 1980’s action movies, the kind that were ridiculous to begin with. Under the direction of an SNL writer making his feature debut, Jorma Taccone, the movie pays plenty of attention to the tropes of the 80’s action movie in style and form. Here is a comedy that consistently looks and sounds like a typical action outing. It’s a parody of overblown, over-the-top action filmmaking. A few summers ago, Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz got huge laughs with the same basic concept by using truly well-staged action to highlight both the pleasure and the ridiculousness of the genre. MacGruber takes a different approach, constantly undercutting the pleasure of the action without having any jokes to fill the void. It becomes a sparsely amusing comedy and a thoroughly unexciting action movie. Despite willfully glib work from Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe (just two of the painfully obvious casting callbacks to the 80’s), and despite the earnest efforts of Kristen Wiig and Ryan Phillipe (as sidekicks), the movie ultimately fails because there are no funny situations in which to put the characters. Forte’s MacGruber is the only zany character in the entire film, bouncing through semi-serious set-pieces with a cast determined to play everything as if it were an action film. (The exception is Maya Rudolph, who shows up only briefly and is therefore easily the most tolerable). As the sole intended source of humor, outside of bad puns and silly names, MacGruber himself becomes grating and annoying fairly quickly, leaving for the exasperated audience’s enjoyment only a thin action plot and a series of gaps where the laughter should be.

Little People, Big World: BABIES

Babies is a film about looking. In this French documentary from director Thomas Balmès, the audience is treated to long, steady, tranquil shots that look in on four different babies – one from Japan, one from Namibia, one from Mongolia, one from America – throughout the course of their first year. We look at the babies. The babies look at their world. We gaze. They gaze. It’s cinema so simple that it’s a wonder that this concept has gone almost entirely unexploited until now.

The subjects may be infants, but the film is hardly infantile. Instead, it’s merely passive. Balmès is content to provide almost no context at all. When quick subtitles at the beginning tell us the names and locations of the four babies, it almost seems like an imposition on the part of the audience to even desire that small scrap of information. This is a film to observe, to contemplate, and, of course, to coo and giggle at the screen.

After all, babies are cute. They have chubby limbs, plump cheeks, and big watery eyes that are always moving, always revealing thought. They are little people discovering the world. They don’t hesitate to show emotion. They have no illusions, no pretensions, and no falsehoods. They are what they are. The film shows them crying, smiling, laughing, playing, eating, urinating, thinking, babbling, crawling. It’s almost entirely wordless; the voices of the parents go without subtitles and are mixed at a volume of low comprehensibility. When one little guy finally says “mama” in the last reel of the picture, it’s nearly revelatory.

As the film unspools, attentive viewers will notice patterns both visual and textual. The shots are consistently low to the ground. Groupings of developments and growth show similarities of babies that are consistent across cultures, even as cultural differences become clearer as the film progresses. It’s interesting to see, say, a baby in Namibia splashing through a puddle while one in Mongolia meets a chicken, while one in Tokyo visits a play group, while one in America looks at a book. More interesting are the moments that show the babies at similar moments, like bathing, eating, or socializing. Here the comparing and contrasting are more obvious. And yet, with such quiet, restrained filmmaking, these moments are neither conversations nor condemnations. They are what you decide they are.

With so little spoon-fed to the viewer, it could easily become a passive experience of giggling and smiling at what could be seen as a mere feature-length YouTube video. “Oh, look at the cute widdle baby!” The film deserves a little more than that. Balmès presents his tableaus with some artistry and thoughtfulness and, though it ultimately feels a little long, it’s a moderately fascinating, and very adorable, experience.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kiss Kiss Clang Clang: IRON MAN 2

Iron Man 2 sent me into adrenaline-fueled euphoria. It’s a thundering, overstuffed sequel that never feels bloated or cumbersome because it’s pitched and paced at the level of graceful comedy and built around excellent actors giving carefully modulated character-based performances. It’s entertaining – a blast, actually. Only afterwards was I bothered by the flaws in the film. The first film had a lovely, elegant structure on which to hang its charming performances and enjoyable action. Though part 2 is ultimately suffering from a sagging midsection and enough strands of plot to obscure forward momentum, the two main action set-pieces are actually bigger and better, the comedy is zippier, and the ballooning supporting cast is exceedingly talented. Not only is Robert Downey Jr. continuing his truly great performance as Tony Stark, the billionaire who is also Iron Man,  not only does Gwyneth Paltrow continue to excel as Pepper Potts, his assistant, but this time they are joined by Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson who bring differing and intriguing qualities to their roles. Rourke gets a little underused, nearly buried by such a busy film, but his character is distinctive, menacing, and serves as a catalyst for Stark to learn more about his past.

In this sequel, Tony Stark is confronted with enemies approaching from several different angles at once. Rourke’s character is a classic problem of the past that intrudes on the present, the son of a man who had his life demolished by Stark’s father (who is charmingly played in sort-of flashbacks by Mad Men’s John Slattery). Rockwell plays a rival arms dealer who is trying to make the Iron Man look like the Tin Man. Smarmy and more than a little ridiculous, Rockwell very nearly steals the movie from Downey, no small feat. He lights up the screen, adding extra interest and joy with his mere presence. The same goes for Rourke; although he’s not used as much as he should have been, he draws attention to himself with his mere physicality, so aptly described by Slate’s Stephen Metcalf as resembling a “Julie Taymor puppet.” No one can match Rourke for pure intimidating glower.

The film is a high-gloss, whiz-bang summer action blow-out, filled with literal fireworks. It treads no new ground in big blockbuster filmmaking but treads the old ground about as well as it can be trod.  Returning director Jon Favreau keeps charm and dazzle blasting out of the screen as he keeps the pace and plotting nimbler than is usually seen in films of this type. It filled me with a kind of giddiness and excitement that carried me over the flaws. The film disappoints only slightly in its soft-pedaling and vague handling of politics, despite blatantly bringing it into the plot. The first film got a kick out of its left-leaning fantasy of an arm of the military-industrial complex, represented by Stark Industries, growing a conscience and using its powers for peace. Here, the politics are muddier. The sleazy senator played (excellently, I might add) by Garry Shandling is never tied to any particular ideology and the way the United States government reacts to the Iron Man situation is ill-defined. I understand the need to be politically restrained to play to a broad audience, but it’s a little awkward to bring up the topic through a Senate hearing in fake C-span footage and then fail to follow through with any true political resonance.

But, I hardly care. The pacing and politics aside, I found the movie to be an utter delight. Even the recasting, with Don Cheadle taking the place of the first film’s Terrence Howard role, barely registered. The film moves mechanically forward, eventually encasing nearly all of the best actors in these clanking metal suits, but I found the action to move along agreeably swiftly – for once the explosions almost seem to take up too little time. With zip and some (small) wit, the movie slapped a simple smile on my face.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Quick Look: THE LOSERS

The Losers is the KFC Double Down of action movies. It’s dumb, impractical, greasy, and messy. It’s also sporadically fun to look at, even if it’s never a particularly compelling or necessary experience. Director Sylvain White gives his men-on-a-mission actioner some style, bathing the screen in inky primary colors, but ultimately can’t keep the film enjoyable or entertaining. It’s forgettable. I found moments enjoyable, but I would find myself quickly drifting off into boredom. As the villain, Jason Patric has some underutilized charisma, but it’s unfortunate that, combined, the entire team assembled to take him down (including Zoe Saldana, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Columbus Short, and Chris Evans) can’t scrape up the same modest level of personality. Of course, no one involved is helped by being forced to speak the truly awful would-be banter credited to Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt. The fast pace and sporadically enjoyable style is no match for the thuddingly dumb and unceasingly sloppy screenplay. The elements for a fun action flick are here, but, just as the Double Down could sure use less chicken and more bread, the movie needed more rewrites before filming to be less bad.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another New Nightmare: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

The main raison d’etre of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake is theoretically the casting of a mid-comeback Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger, the series’ dream-haunting serial killer. In practice, the great actor has been given significantly less than nothing to do with the role; he settles into a pattern of twitches and growls that are matched with equally tiring glares and stares of the ominous variety. To make matters worse, the changes to the character could have led to a film with interesting ideas to share, if the filmmakers had any clear way of saying them, if the makers even realized the existence of such ideas.

In the original 1984 semi-classic from Wes Craven, Krueger was a serial killer who met his demise at the hands of an angry mob of grieving, outraged citizens. He subsequently haunts the dreams of a collection of teens through the course of the film. Now that’s it is 2010, that’s just too simple a premise, I guess. Now Krueger was a pedophile who was killed by a group of angry parents. Years later, he haunts the dreams of his victims, now teens and young adults. That could be a powerful message for a horror movie; one that casts a stark light on the ways child abuse can leave an intense impact on the victims’ lives, one that says the damage some are capable of committing against the most innocent among us is the real nightmare. But first-time feature director Samuel Bayer and his team are content to leave the idea as a dully formed and dumbly wielded bludgeon of sensationalism in an otherwise dull, painfully adequate horror film.

If you find sudden appearances that are synchronized with loud blats or clangs on the soundtrack the height of scariness, then by all means you will be terrified by this remake which cycles through the memorable images of the original with all the energy of a boring routine and all the imagination of a checklist. The claw in the bathtub? Check. The bulging wallpaper? Check. The soupy carpet? Check. The slow-mo jump rope? The menacing boiler rooms? The levitating girl? The bloody body bag in the school hall? Check, check, check, check. They’re all accounted for, but in worse shape than before.

Craven’s original has a sluggish, dreamlike quality. Watching for the first time, I was never quite sure when we were in or out of a dream. The characters and the threat to their lives are revealed efficiently and creepily and the odd incongruous jolts of creepy imagery are genuinely shocking. I loved the quietly creeping mood of the film that slowly overwhelms. I loved the hall monitor’s sudden transformation, the stairs that melt underfoot, and the unpredictable, shifting Krueger. The remake gets this all wrong. The pace isn’t dreamlike; it’s just sleepy. It’s not creepy or shocking, just rote. Information is doled out in entirely inefficient ways. If I hadn’t seen the original it would have been quite late in the film before I even figured out what the exact nature of the threat was.

It’s a frustration, I suppose. This is a film that couldn’t even hurdle my very low expectations. There’s an attractive young cast who are quite excellent at moping with suitably tired expressions including Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, and Kellan Lutz. They are asked to do so little, they may as well be living statues. The movie really lets down its cast and its audience, but above all, the movie lets down Haley, who, from behind ugly, uninspired makeup, is just as unneeded as the film itself.
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