Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Sleepy Kind of Love: ECLIPSE

By far the lousiest of the Twilight movies, a series that has thus far managed to be only watchable at best, Eclipse is a film only the most passionate fans, those who already know they’ll just looove it, could enjoy. It contains the worst acting, the worst set design, and some of the worst effects. Or maybe it was made worse by the movie’s slow pace and endlessly circular dialogue that allowed me to stew in my discontent. It all seems thin and chintzy, as if any old thing could have been slapped together to please the fans as long as it contained all the moping and doe-eyed expressions they could get. A handful of scenes late in the film take place on the top of a mountain that looks so unconvincing that I got the feeling that a slight shift of the camera would reveal a stagehand shoveling fake snow. Even the gorgeous deep autumnal color palate of the second film has been replaced with thin grey tones, a warning of depressing blandness to come.

The other Twilight movies were no great cinema, but at least Catherine Hardwicke and Chris Weitz, who directed one installment each, had a good handle on what worked best about their films (Weitz much more than Hardwicke), and it sure wasn’t the source material or the horribly uncomplicated love triangle at its center. They played up the supporting cast, where the series’ best talent is kept, giving juicy scene-stealing moments to a great actor like Michael Sheen or allowing supremely talented young actresses like Anna Kendrick and Dakota Fanning to bring some class to so much hogwash. Even poor Billy Burke, in the thankless role of a clueless father, was utilized for his ability to show with a glance how he can seemingly sense the ridiculousness. Here the supporting cast is nothing but glorified extras.

Eclipse is all about Bella and Edward and Jacob and how Bella loves Edward but has feelings for Jacob too. This is also the same basic plot as the second film, but this time it’s played with considerably less energy. The returning leads – Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner – almost appear to be sleepwalking through their scenes. Stewart and Pattinson, especially, seem to have none of what little chemistry they had in the first film while Lautner has lost any spark of romance he had in the second.

Of course, they aren’t helped by the fact that most of the dialogue in the movie, when it’s not simply dull exposition, is nearly sub-literate statements of emotions and desire. “I want you.” “I have feelings for him.” “You love me.” “This is dangerous.” “You know I’m hotter than you.” All of the above are actual lines of dialogue that can be heard at different points in the film, but the last of those at least has the decency to be something of a laugh line. This is a film that cuts out all but the sappiest and dullest of moments, stripping away all the little moments of real humanity or small humor that caused its predecessors to have some modicum of life.

To his credit, director David Slade (of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night) shoots the dialogue scenes close and quick, trying, but failing, to spark some life into the movie. After some time, the extreme close-ups of pale faces started to run together. Slade is at his best in three flashbacks that are the sole sources of excitement to be found. They’re chances to break out of the dull colors and duller conversations. My favorite of the three presents brief snippets of a story about a bride-to-be who is beaten and left for dead at the hands of her fiancĂ©. Saved from certain death by being turned into a vampire, she takes her revenge. There’s a great shot of this vampiric woman, all dressed up in a wedding gown, bursting in on her abusive ex. That’s the kind of dynamism I would have loved to see in the rest of the movie.

Instead, our simple characters are still dithering over who loves whom, and how much, in endlessly tiresome fashion. Not even a big, dumb vampires-and-werewolves-versus-evil-vampires brawl at the end could rouse me from the stupor that I entered after looking at the time, certain that the movie was almost over, and discovering that there was still an hour to go.

For Art's Sake: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

If you haven’t heard of the street-artist Banksy, you don’t know what you’re missing. He’s an anonymous artist, assumed to be male and British, who specializes in what others would less charitably call graffiti and vandalism. He makes strong, sometimes muddled, political and artistic statements with an adventurously comedic prankish brio. Take, for instance, the time he painted the wall in the Gaza strip with cracks, human figures, and glimpses of an island paradise peeking through painted holes. Or the time he bent a London telephone booth in half and stabbed it with a pickax. Or the time he put a dummy Guantanamo prisoner in Disneyland. Or the time he had a hit gallery showing and sold artwork for millions of dollars.

Now, here comes Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film with no director’s credit, but which wears the label “A Banksy Film.” It proceeds as a documentary culled from thousands of hours of footage from a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. As a result, Guetta has boxes upon boxes of tapes that document the rise of street art in the late 90’s. He starts out filming a relative with the pseudonym Space Invader who sticks representations of Atari avatars in public spaces. Soon, Guetta becomes acquainted with more and more of these artists, some of whom would go on to far greater success including Shepard Fairey, creator of the ubiquitous red-white-and-blue Obama poster.

Guetta throws himself into the filming, even helping the artists set up their elaborate murals and posters. As a portrait of creation, of groundbreaking, rule-breaking art, of elaborate, goofy, sometimes pretentious, statements, the film is vast in its specificity. It’s a blast watching the footage tumble off the screen in a heady rush of excitement and creativity, shot through with a sense of elaborate law-skirting.

This isn’t just a documentary film from Guetta, though. This is a Banksy film. As such, the film is more complex than a mere document of a movement. Nor is it as simple to decode. The twists and turns that take place in the latter portions of the film are incredible in their hilarity and dexterity. Is it all a prank? That’s the question some have raised since the film’s release. I’ll answer it with a question. Does it matter?

This is a fast, hugely entertaining look at the art world that is both incredibly funny and enjoyable and a penetrating look into what people value in art, how artists operate, how artists relate to each other, how the public reacts to art, and how art relates to commerce. It’s a documentary with a narrow focus that nonetheless feels broad in its implications. In its heady mix of entertainment, information and art it feels like more than a film. This is a documentary that feels like a piece of street art, radical and amusing, confused yet clear, and made from an incredible mix of planning and happenstance.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Black and White: THE WHITE RIBBON

Michael Haneke is a master filmmaker. With The White Ribbon he exhibits total control over every aspect of filmmaking as he creates an experience that tightens its icy grip around the nerves of the audience. It’s mysterious, but not a mystery, not exactly, although unexplained events do happen. Take the opening, where a small town doctor, out for a ride on his horse, hits a long, thin wire secretly hung low to the ground on his property, causing a horrible accident. Who hung the wire? And why is it gone when townsfolk come to investigate?

The film takes place in a small German village in the years just before World War I. The story unfolds in a stark, cold black and white. This is no nostalgic or historical color scheme. It comes with whites that sear and blacks that haunt. But despite such sharp contrast, this is not a film with a clear cut moral universe. Nor is it a film out to find the perpetrator and hand out justice. As the film quietly, patiently unfolds, as more mysterious accidents befall members of the community, we begin to sense only that the town is not as peaceful and pastoral as an initial glance would otherwise show. There is a darkness to these people. Haneke is not just laying bare dark permutations of human nature; he’s stripping the past of all rose-colored notions. When you think of your ancestors, the ones from so far back you know only their names and hazy, wrinkled photographs, you don’t often stop to wonder what they were really like.

Narrating the story for us is the town’s shy, young school teacher (Christian Friedel). He calmly lays out the facts of everyday life in this village, letting us into his thought processes as he tries to ascertain the identity (or identities) of the perpetrator of such increasingly violent “accidents.” Because he tells the story, he is beyond suspicion. But even more than the mere fact of his narration, his innocence shines on his face, which seems to exude both youth and goodness. We slowly begin to discover how the town’s respected figures of authority – the doctor (Rainer Bock), the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) – are not as righteous as they appear. But just because they are shown to be monstrous, barbaric people in their actions doesn’t make them responsible for the incidents that are terrorizing the village.

A child goes missing. A barn burns. A woman falls to her death. Are these random, isolated tragedies? Or is something much darker afoot? Much like the middle-class French family in Haneke’s great CachĂ© (2005), who find their lives turned upside-down by the mere fact of knowing that someone is watching them when mysterious videotapes of their house begin to appear on their front step, the villagers are thrown into a quietly mounting fear. The teacher keeps his eyes on the children, a source of both innocence and malevolence. They walk through the village in packs, somberly and seriously. They know something is wrong, but how much do they know about why?

This is a punishing film, but also an absorbing, mesmerizing experience. It’s such a fully immersive experience that it almost feels like time travel. This village is rendered in amazing specificity and detail. Leaving the theater, I felt like I’d seen a great movie, true, but I also felt like I was returning from a trip to that village in that time. All manner of human pain is laid bare in The White Ribbon and Haneke makes sure that you don’t miss a single minute of it. It’s austere and disturbing, and yet it is balanced by both a sweet romance for the teacher and sense of encroaching tragedy. Some of these men will be drawn into World War I. These children will grow up to fight World War II. The evil that mankind is capable of producing will be given a far greater backdrop than this humble village. After all, what is terrorizing this village is nothing less than the darkest aspects of humanity. This is a film about how we treat each other, how we punish each other, and how we punish ourselves. This is a film for our time and all time.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Running On Empty: KNIGHT AND DAY

As Knight and Day began, I found myself underwhelmed. Maybe it’ll get better, I told myself. If I hadn’t given up on the movie somewhere about half-way through, I would have been telling that to myself for another hour. But isn’t giving up on a middling movie sometimes liberating? When this particular example, an especially dull action-adventure, reaches its one (yes, one) mildly enjoyable action sequence, I found myself, not enjoying it exactly, but slightly thankful that the whole endeavor had just barely skated over my freshly lowered expectations.

But why should such a promising premise have to go to such waste? It’s sad that it only ever satisfies because it has thoroughly prepared a viewer to expect much less. After all, it stars Tom Cruise. Sure, he’s a little nutty, and everyone thinks he’s lost his mind. That’s what jumping on Oprah’s couch and ranting conspiracy theories earns you these days, I guess. But that didn’t affect my opinion of his work in the last decade. Minority Report, Collateral, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, and Tropic Thunder managed to put him to good, sometimes great, use. With Knight and Day he plays a character that doesn’t seem a stretch from either his public persona or his past roles, stepping easily into the role of a rouge spy who may have experienced a total break with reality. The character is as thin and underdeveloped as it can be without becoming just a cardboard cutout.

He’s in possession of the movie’s MacGuffin – a perpetual energy device invented by a bespectacled Paul Dano – and is consequently on the run from the F.B.I. and a powerful arms dealer. Why are these parties interested in the device? Who plans to use it for what? Why do the characters do anything that they do? I don’t know. How is an audience supposed to care about character or plot when the movie itself can’t even figure out what’s going on?

Most clueless is the character played by Cameron Diaz. It’s not Diaz’s fault – she’s more likable than Cruise and as charming as the movie allows – but it’s just that she’s not a character exactly. She’s drawn into the plot for no other reason than because Cruise likes her. If he really liked her, he would have kept her out of the mayhem that follows their Meet Cute that quickly turns into a crash landing. Besides, she turns out to be less a character and more like a vaguely disguised plot device that can shrilly say and do whatever is necessary to keep the plot moving. Cruise’s character is similarly sketchy and vaguer, but at least he ends up sitting out some of the movie.

While our leads flee vaguely sinister people like Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis, the cast gets involved in coldly unexciting action sequences that are loaded down with CGI and often seem cut short. The actors never seem to be physically present in any of the commotion. It’s almost as if the cast was lazily pasted from an abandoned initial sequence into fresh effects with little thought or planning. Special effects can do amazing things these days, but why don’t they look better here? It’s bad enough that the movie plays like some mishap deleted every third scene, but does it has to look lazy and unconvincing too?

The main perpetrator of this mess, aside from Patrick O’Neill, the half-dozen rewriters, and their screenplay, is director James Mangold. To his credit, the movie often looks quite good when the effects aren’t swirling by, and it flows quickly. It’s not entirely unenjoyable, nor is it interminable. It’s merely clumsily explicated and only half as funny as it thinks it is. I like Mangold. He’s done fine work in the past, creating films that are appreciably better than they could have been. His last two films were the sturdy and compelling Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the fun 3:10 to Yuma remake, films memorable for their great performances, wonderful pacing and perfect middlebrow (I mean that as a compliment) sheen. With Knight and Day, Mangold has made a film that is significantly worse than it should have been, a bland, underwhelming contraption that fits comfortably only in the empty spot on Fox’s release calendar. Luckily for all involved, it’s not memorably atrocious. In fact, it’s just not notable at all.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Quick Look: REMEMBER ME

Remember Me takes its central romance very seriously, draping it with all kinds of somber import. College-aged New Yorkers Robert Pattinson and Emilie de Ravin meet and grow to love each other over the course of a summer. He’s from a rich family, represented by his businessman father (Pierce Brosnan). She’s from a lower middle-class family, represented by her policeman father (Chris Cooper). The movie moves in often predictable ways, but it’s elevated by the fine work from Brosnan and Cooper who turn stock roles into something a little more meaningful. The movie leans too heavily on de Ravin’s moodiness and Pattinson’s leftover deathly pallor from Twilight, but the story essentially works despite itself. The romance felt believable and both the inter- and intra-family conflict is handled nicely. Despite the burdensome tragedy that surrounds the characters (it opens with a fatal mugging and ends with, well, let’s just say it’s so ridiculously surprising and bracing that it almost becomes a fittingly sick punchline), the movie makes them feel, if not real, at the very least like well-inhabited types. Director Allen Coulter, from a script by Will Fetters, keeps the plot moving and the imagery simple while playing to the strengths of his actors. The main couple is believably drawn and the supporting cast, from their fathers and families to the stereotypical goofy best friend, is fine as well. This is a simple, standard film that satisfies in its ordinariness, in its small charm and mildly involving subplots, in its refreshing seriousness and in its good turns from dependable character actors. At least until the ending that becomes a real test of the audience’s loyalty. I went with it, so unexpected that it almost circles back around to retroactively inevitable, but with an ending this out-of-left-field, your reactions may vary.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Quick Look: THE KARATE KID (2010)

The Karate Kid is simultaneously a remake of the 1984 film and a two-and-a-half hour tourism commercial for China. In fact, the location shift from the original’s California seems to be the only tangible reason for this remake. Don’t get me wrong, director Harald Zwart has made a slick product that’s somewhat exciting and perfectly respectful. It has nice lessons, admirable patience, and impressive cinematography by Roger Pratt. But as our kid who must learn to fight the bullies through the power of martial arts, Jaden Smith, despite his likability, (I never thought I’d write the following phrase) is no Ralph Macchio. Faring better is Jackie Chan, who makes a perfectly fine Mr. Miyagi (even though he’s called Mr. Han), but the characterization still suffers from cheap, magical Orientalism. As the kid’s mother, Taraji P. Henson isn’t called to do much, but she’s such a good actress that it’s always good to see her anyways. I’m not anti-remake, and I’m especially not opposed to a new take on this particular material, but this faithful, plain, and sleepy remake is a retread with very little new or interesting to say.

Quick Look: GET HIM TO THE GREEK













In 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, director Nicholas Stoller’s debut film, one of the most memorable characters was Russell Brand as rocker Aldous Snow, a coarse and drug-addled delight who stole every scene he was in. For Stoller’s sophomore effort, Get Him to the Greek, Brand’s Snow gets a starring role in a film all his own. Of course, he shares it with Jonah Hill, who plays an employee of a record label. Boss Sean Combs sends Hill to London with the task of getting Snow to the Greek theater in Los Angeles in time to perform an anniversary concert in hopes of rebooting his career. The movie gets off to a hilarious start with a music video for Snow’s most recent album African Child, an album that is proclaimed to be “the worst thing to happen to Africa since Apartheid.” Spiraling out of control after the double setback of the failing album and a horribly public split with pop tart Jackie Q (a hilariously game Rose Byrne), Snow is a mess. Jonah Hill and Russell Brand have great chemistry, and the movie gets plenty of mileage out of the standard road-trip style looseness and goofiness. We’ve seen road trips before, but never with these characters. Eventually, the movie becomes a disconnected series of debauched episodes. The sense of a rush to get him to the Greek is almost entirely missing. This should be a madcap dash, but it’s too slack for that. It's often funny, but tinged with a colossal sense of disappointment. It could – it should – be so much funnier. Funny jokes are repeated until they aren’t and the one’s that weren’t funny to begin with are used even more often. Aldous Snow’s hilarious music is pushed to the side and attempts to deepen his character fall flat. The movie grows mushy, falling prey to the need for emotional growth. But the thing is, Hill and Brand are better antagonists than friends and I never bought that they grew close throughout their adventures. The romantic subplots are abused and mistreated, ultimately failing to create any sentimentality precisely because the female roles (not just Byrne’s, but also a small role for Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as Hill’s girlfriend) are severely underwritten. This is a sloppy, aimless comedy that sometimes made me laugh, but ultimately left me feeling sour.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Long Goodbye: TOY STORY 3

Toy Story 3 is a film so rich with emotion and humor, so full of suspense yet big-hearted, and ultimately so dazzlingly satisfying as both a film and a finale to a series, began two films and 15 years ago, that it feels almost unnecessary to comment further. Go. See. Enjoy.

Once you've seen it, you can appreciate its scope, its generosity, and its thematic brilliance. These plastic toys, now so iconic, first came to us in a film of simple charms, primal emotion and unending energy. They were deepened into startling emotional power in a second film. Now, with this third and final film, these toys have become a metaphor for childhood, for memory, for mortality. We now have an epic three part tale of friendship and trust, love and loss, imagination and creation, aging, remembrance, and, yes, even the circle of life. This is the stuff of classics, the stuff of modern day legend. And we see all this, we see ourselves, reflected in our disposable commercialization, in the soulful plastic eyes of our toys.

And through it all, the film remains a total crowd pleaser, a total delight. It's fast and funny, sweet and thoughtful. The story moves with purpose and thoughtfulness, once again an example of Pixar's storytelling prowess. It takes these characters, imbued not only with humanity and personality, but who also are tied up in the nostalgia of my generation and in our shared cultural memory, and treats them not as icons or products, but with the care and respect they deserve as characters.

The film finds – if you’re like me, you know them by heart – Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Bull’s-eye, Hamm, Rex, the Potato Heads, and Slinky Dog saddened by years of neglect, yearning to be played with, to be touched, just one more time. Andy, who was once just a little boy is now grown and heading to college. He decides to keep the toys, but his mom, through a packaging related mistake, donates them to a daycare. This sets up all the central conflicts for the film, giving our returning cast of friends plenty new characters and situations to play off of and chances for new and varied thematic elements that also feed into a deepening sense of empathy and connection.

It’s great to see all the old characters up to new tricks. To see them alive on the screen and to hear the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, and John Ratzenberger, among others, feels wonderful. (The sense of continuity is so strong that even the little boy who voiced Andy is back). In some ways it feels like a reunion with childhood friends. The new characters are worthy additions, only adding to the rich tapestry that has become this world. There’s Lotso Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), who gets an origin story that plays like a heartbreaking alternate take on the plot and themes of the original Toy Story, and a Ken doll (Michael Keaton) is a chance for a variety of humor, but also a subtle look at gender politics. Sure, some of the new characters are sight gags, at least at first, but it never feels cheap, and there always exists the quick, indelibly identifiable, human emotion that flashes through the faces of the toys.

The creative team at Pixar, from writer-director Lee Unkrich, to screenwriters Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton, to the entire technical staff, deserves the credit for resisting the urge to churn out a cheap sequel, capitalizing on our love for these characters in an easy or lazy way. Instead, they rewarded our love, cherished our passion, and made a film that is worthy of its predecessors in every way. As far as masterpieces go, Pixar's done it again. This is the rare children’s film that takes time to develop setting, threats and humor alike. This is the rare modern film that knows the value of a pause, of taking a beat to allow the characters to think, to react. This is the kind of movie where the characters truly love each other, who want to help each other. They may be toys, but they sure feel human in their interactions, in their fears, in their emotional pain and angst. After all, here is a film in which our main characters confront their mortality.

Expectedly, the film features gorgeous animation. Light and detail are pitch perfect, as are the astonishingly expressive faces and body language of the toys. The first film was Pixar’s first. The animation was simple and clean. The characters and story were well drawn, and efficiently simple. It’s a film with no wasted space. Woody and Buzz must get back to Andy, a connection, a usefulness that is primal. The toys’ loyalty to him is as great, or greater, than the total love of childhood. By Toy Story 2, the animation is more detailed, the story dealing with emotions a little more complex. The sequel has that sequence that never fails to make me cry, when Jesse the Cowgirl explains the pain of being abandoned by a growing child. The characters have to confront the end of childhood and realize that it is in their future. With Toy Story 3, that future is now, presented in animation that is faithful to the original styles, but adds a complexity to the shots and detail to the textures that would have been unfathomable even ten years ago.

With the end of childhood, though, is a realization that childhood memories linger, and that the beautiful thing about life is that, though children grow, there will always be children. And so this is a film about preservation of love and memories and about renewal of purpose. This is a film about the inevitability of growing up. This is a film that puts these beloved characters up against real danger and deep emotional trauma and lets it sit. Reassurance does not come quickly or easily. By the time we've reached the film's powerful coda, an emotional send-off to these characters, there is the feeling of great sadness, energy, and hope, of well-earned completion that only comes from the greatest of films. The film is engaging, smart, and charming, genuinely funny and moving, with scenes that had me loudly laughing, quietly crying, and, even at one point, nearly shaking from suspense in a moment of sheer, painful terror as certain doom approaches for cherished characters. This is a film, now, with its predecessors, a triptych, for the ages, to be passed down and enjoyed for generations to come. This sequel to beloved films deserves to be just as beloved.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the End of the World as We Know It: THE ROAD and THE BOOK OF ELI

Two recent Blu-ray and DVD releases, The Road and The Book of Eli, use the post-apocalyptic world as a return to the aesthetics of the Western. Instead of dusty plains of promise and danger, we have gray, oppressive landscapes which overwhelm in their vast emptiness that is punctuated only with sharp, crumbling reminders of the way things used to be. They set up struggles to survive while asking why it would be worth doing so, what the world would have to offer in such horrible circumstances.

The Road is based on Cormac McCarthy’s brutal masterpiece which had prose so brittle and hard that I could almost hear the keys of a typewriter pounding out each word. Director John Hillcoat also helmed 2005’s The Proposition, a western set in the Australian Outback which foregrounded brutality, lingering on violence while refusing to glamorize, a technique typified by the moment where a gunshot pulls off half of an Aborigine’s face. Hillcoat uses similar skills here while tracking a man and his son as they make their way to the coast mere years after the unspecified cataclysm that reduced the world to rubble and ash. They have a small glimmer of hope, but it quickly becomes clear that refuge from the world’s newfound horrors will be hard, if not impossible.

Viggo Mortensen is raspy and gaunt. He’s affecting as he tries to protect his son’s childhood innocence while keeping him acutely aware of the dangers they could face at any moment, not just from the harsh, unforgiving landscape of ruins and the scarcity of food, but also from the nomadic bands of cannibalistic thieves that prey on the weak in a last-ditch effort to delay their own deaths by bringing about the deaths of others. Of great importance is the attention given to the father’s gun, and the somber acknowledgement of the low number of bullets in his possession.

As the son, Kodi Smit-McPhee is Mortensen’s equal: even thinner, even paler, and even more frighteningly fragile. They share the screen by themselves for most of the film, always moving, always scavenging for food in abandoned houses and burnt-out cars. The imagery is purposefully rough, carefully composed to look harsh in its portrayal of world gone unfathomably wrong. The father and son’s monotony of hunger and pain is broken only by brief confrontations, violent and creepy, with the starving cannibals. In a particularly moving sequence, they have an encounter with a more benign individual in the form of a wrinkled, weak, and staggering old man (the great Robert Duvall) who fakes dementia in hope that it will give him meager protection against those who would harm him.

There are also brief, misguided flashbacks to Charlize Theron as Mortensen’s wife and Smit-McPhee’s mother. It should be moving and painful, but they’re too clumsily written and awkwardly spaced. The film is also the victim of clumsy dialogue at times and a score of tinkling strings that attempt to make up for the dialogue by underlining subtext with unwelcome force. What works so well on the page becomes numbing and monotonous in sluggish and repetitive ways. But the film has a disquieting power, a haunted hopelessness that lingers.

The Book of Eli is pulpier, with a slick and fluid camera that the Hughes brothers (of Menace II Society and From Hell) use to compose vivid imagery that pops with B-movie flair. Like The Road, it features a man walking across the ruins of our culture, though in this movie it has been 30 years since the unspecified devastation occurred. This time, it’s Denzel Washington struggling to survive, though he gets to wield a large knife and protect a dusty, leatherbound volume. He stumbles into a small neo-frontier town which is held under the tight grip of its megalomaniacal mayor. The mayor sizes up Eli and determines that he needs to get that book. It is the Bible, after all.

This is a film filled with actors chomping on scenery and strutting about inhabiting their roles with great relish, especially Gary Oldman as the mayor and Mila Kunis, as his daughter, looking much more stunning and scrubbed than the film’s world should allow. There’s also a string of great evocative supporting roles filled by the likes of Tom Waits, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour, and Michael Gambon. They all seem to know they’re in a slightly goofy western transposed into a dusty apocalyptic wasteland and act accordingly.

Washington and Oldman clash over the book as two of the only literate individuals left in the world. Denzel is looking to kindle his small spark of mankind’s long-lost culture. Oldman wants to take advantage of the Bible’s ability to be warped into a tool to control and persuade a populace. What keeps the movie from turning into a broad silly mess about fighting over a book, or worse still, a story about how only the Bible can save us, or even worse, The Postman, is the way the conflict becomes a parable of sorts about the power of the written word. There’s something kind of thrilling about a movie that pits a sort of warrior-monk devoted to close readings against a horde of anti-intellectuals led by a man whose only interest in knowledge is in the way it can be twisted to fit his ambitions.

Even though there are moments of great action, including an incredible siege that’s a small masterpiece of sound design, the moment that stands out is when Kunis looks at Washington a simply says “teach me.” Sure, it’s a pulpy B-movie and unashamedly so. (After all, it has a prison cell improbably decorated with a poster for the post-apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog). But this is a film that gets its biggest thrill from the hope that humans will always yearn to learn, ending with a sort of Fahrenheit 451 conclusion that encourages savoring stories, no matter how goofy.

The seriously grim The Road is somber and sluggish and the seriously silly The Book of Eli is more conventionally entertaining. Which is better? It’s hard to say and it doesn’t matter. Despite their surface similarities in setting these are two films using similar starts to work towards different goals. They’re two different approaches to similar material, but what they share is an interest in exploring human strength and mankind’s capacity for survival. They take us past modern anxieties to show us that things could be a whole lot worse. If we’re not careful, we could all be suddenly thrust into a sick Western.

Monday, June 14, 2010

These Aren't The Losers; They're THE A-TEAM

Joe Carnahan’s big screen A-Team isn’t as tough and gritty as his Narc (2002) or as much of a cesspool of zesty gore as his loopy Smokin’ Aces (2007). It’s big, broad, and goofy. It’s short on character and long on energetic cacophony, but boy did I enjoy that big, goofy cacophony. It’s satisfying on a pulpy genre level where good guys slam into bad guys with guts and gusto. The movie’s a whiz-bang, red-blooded adventure with over-the-top moments following one after the other. I could not, for even one second, believe it on any emotional or character level, but I believed it on a pulpy movie level, the kind of sheer dumb enjoyment that made me chuckle and grin all the way through.

Taking its cues from the 80’s television show, the movie follows a team of daring-doers who pull off convoluted and nearly impossible plans on their way to get the bad guys. Liam Neeson is a delight here, building off his new action movie credibility bought with his intimidating turn as the vengeful father in Taken, becoming the leader of this A-Team. As the men under his command, Bradley Cooper smirks while Sharlto Copley is enjoyably loony and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson pities fools.

They strike poses capably and look good walking in slow motion or delivering kicks and punches that land with loud smacks and thumps on the soundtrack. This is not the kind of movie that inspires great acting – though it is a film that knows how to find the perfect pro-war Gandhi quote – but the team works well together and they are more than up to the task of shouting brisk exposition over roaring engines and fiery explosions. They’re accused of a crime they didn’t commit, you see, and are consequently on the run from both the military (led by the gorgeous and tough Jessica Biel) and the CIA (led by the ably slimy Patrick Wilson). This calls for all kinds of narrow escapes and close calls on the way to shoot up and blow up a whole bunch of stuff.

It hangs together less as a narrative and more as a series of extended action beats. Carnahan cuts the action a little too fast, diluting clarity, but he still manages to pull off really sensational moments of inspired ridiculousness. So enjoyably cracked are these moments that they blew past any quibbles I have with the film and carried me on a wave of entertainment. This is the kind of movie that finds its heroes sitting around eating red meat, chomping cigars, laughing, smiling, high-fiving, and generally being pretty pleased with how cool their stunts are. I was right there with them, succumbing to my basest instincts and enjoying every Smash! Bash! Crash! and Kablooey! that was sent my way.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The SPLICE of All Fears














In its opening moments, Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi horror film Splice seems to promise greatness. There’s a nervous energy and eerie intensity with a sense of a smart, suspenseful story developing. Scientists work on a strange creature for a project of mysterious purpose, spitting jargon-filled dialogue back and forth. It reminded me of Shane Carruth’s great indie sci-fi thriller Primer in its willingness to baffle and provoke with its geeky specificity. Unfortunately, Splice fails where Primer succeeds, failing to build on initial intrigue in any meaningful way. Here, the plot grows duller and dimmer as it moves along, eventually reaching a point where every scene is a reason to groan, reaching a cornball peak with a climax that grows increasingly silly.

And yet, the first half of the film grooves on a nice little creepiness that’s pushed along by atmosphere and pacing with a little help from Natali’s quietly unsettling compositions. He doesn’t create striking or inventive visuals, even the special effects feel a bit middling, but there’s an odd sense that something’s not quite right with the soft blue glaze that seems to rest over everything and the strangely still and subdued scenes.

All of this is helped by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, with essentially the only two roles of any note in the film, as two scientists who are inspired by their first creature, and encroaching budgetary slashes, to splice human DNA into the mix. Human cloning is illegal, we are reminded, “but this won’t be human, not quite.” The sense of scientific boundaries breaking and moral lines muddying adds to the unsettling effect the film strives to sustain. Brody’s character seems in over his head almost immediately, with his distinctive features seeming to almost retract in stress and overwhelming helplessness. Polley’s features are similarly exploited for their smart horror-movie perfection. With her big eyes and expressive face she registers the emotions of her character with disturbing clarity, at times shot in ways that are surely intended to evoke Shelley Duvall in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as Polley’s love for their new creature becomes blinding and leads to trouble. But this trouble comes not just from well-intentioned scientific desires, or even the sublimated parental yearnings that the film touches on. Much like Nicholson and Duvall in Kubrick’s masterpiece, Brody and Polley play characters that seem to have crazy in their bones; it only takes a push into the unknown to set off a horrible chain reaction of psychological and biological torment.

It seems like I’m describing a good movie, but only because I’m describing the first part of Splice. In avoiding spoilers I am not telling you about the increasingly silly nature of the second half. This is a very cold, serious sci-fi horror film, with only small splashes of dark humor (like in the scene where the front rows of an audience at a scientific convention ends up splattered with blood). As the film moves towards its conclusion, the dialogue begins to sound tin-eared, the characters’ behaviors seem less motivated, and the twists come fast and foolish. Maybe we’re supposed to be prepared for this shift by the moment when Polley muses that “if you could understand crazy it wouldn’t be crazy.” The movie loses its heft and rigor, succumbing to sequences of shocking and exploitative goofiness that would feel more out of place if the film hadn’t slowly slid there through the course of its second act. It’s a gradually disappointing movie, rather than springing it on you all at once.
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