Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some of the President's Men: FAIR GAME

In a time when an ugly right-wing rumor mill has been undermining a presidency through non-stop insinuations, it’s nice to see a film like Fair Game. It's not a great film, but it serves as a good reminder that not too long ago we actually did have a presidential administration that engaged in sneaky, probably criminal, tactics that infected decision-making in the governmental bureaucracy. It was in power for most of the last decade.

In 2002, when the C.I.A. had former ambassador Joe Wilson investigate a rumor that Niger sold uranium to Iraq, he reported back that the transaction couldn’t have taken place. He was understandably shocked when he heard president George W. Bush mention that very rumor as fact in the State of the Union address in support of invading Iraq. Outraged, he wrote an editorial in The New York Times saying that Bush and his administration had distorted facts in order to support a war of choice. But his outrage wouldn’t end there.

His wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover C.I.A. agent, deep into missions of sensitive and dangerous natures in the Middle East. Imagine her surprise to wake up one morning to see her cover blown on the morning news. Some high-ranking Bush official, or perhaps several, had leaked her identity in an attempt to discredit her husband and to quiet anti-war sentiment. After all, bombs had already fallen on Baghdad. Meanwhile a smear campaign began to launch its attack on this family.

In Fair Game, Naomi Watts plays Plame. She’s a capable career agent and analyst, working on gathering intelligence and helping defectors. When she is revealed to the world as an agent, she is naturally distraught. Watts plays these scenes with great nuance and care. What could have easily become weepy histrionics is nicely tuned on a realistic level. We sense her pain written across her face, in the tiniest shift of her expression, in the small shine of tears sitting in her eyes.

She’s well matched with Sean Penn, who plays Joe Wilson as a principled man who speaks his mind, sometimes to the detriment of those around him. Penn’s performance threatens to overpower the film with his capital-A acting, but it ends up being a nice, controlled smolder of a performance. The deep lines in Penn’s forehead accentuate the deep anger both feel towards the situation.

What’s best about the film is the way it mostly sidesteps easy political moralizing in order to focus on a couple in crisis. Wilson and Plame are essentially a typical suburban married couple with a two kids, two cars, and a nice house. Though they find themselves in the middle of an unexpected situation with grave consequences, the tidy script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth steers clear of making Wilson and Plame left-wing martyrs. Instead, the focus remains on who these two people are and what makes them tick. These are real people who are being pushed to the breaking point by forces far beyond their control.

Director Doug Liman, who directed the very good spy film The Bourne Identity, shoots this film with a tense, nervous camera that enlivens the domestic scenes with a jittery energy. This style extends into the moments in which the film’s scope opens up onto the stage of international intrigue and narrows into the winding halls of Washington D.C.’s powerful shadows. Of particular interest are scenes with the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby. As played by David Andrews, Libby is a conniving administration tool, ruthlessly bullying the administration’s spin into the decision-making bureaucracy made up of studious public servants.

This is a nice film, though it feels a bit more dispensable than it should. It’s a film of fine performances and calmly unraveling anger. It’s compelling without being overly insistent, but I couldn’t help but wish for a bit more power behind its punches. This is an enraging film, but it fades faster than I would have expected. It’s just a bit too clinical to resonate as deeply as it could.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Beginning of the End: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1

The filmmakers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have been telling us that the decision to split the film into two parts was made with purely creative reasons, the better to faithfully reproduce J.K. Rowling’s text, but having seen Part 1 I can only think that the reason had to have been Warner Brothers’ desire to double their profits. This is a decision that has only hobbled the creativity. Sure, Stuart Craig’s production design is outstanding. The cast is excellent. But director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves don’t quite know what to do with all this extra screen time on their hands. They create some really wonderful moments but separate them with meandering and wheel spinning that distracts and, ultimately, makes the experience feel like a let down. Alexandre Desplat’s score can barely even manage a few bars of John William’s great original themes. It’s like someone promised fireworks only to set off a couple of firecrackers and call it good enough.

Oh, the fun one swift three-and-a-half-hour finale could have been. Instead, we have been served up a two-and-a-half hour prelude to next summer’s main attraction. There’s a lot of monotonous exposition to be found here. The film begins by picking up where last year’s wonderful Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince left off. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are facing a posthumous task from Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to destroy the devices that allow the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to remain immortal. Meanwhile, evil forces are gathering, taking over the Ministry of Magic, installing the snaky Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) to the position of Headmaster of Hogwarts, striking fear in the hearts of all good wizards and witches, and spilling menace into the Muggle world.

Our three heroes are unsure how to proceed. A host of British character actors are there to help them, at first. Returning once again are, among others, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, John Hurt, and Toby Jones. New to the cast are Rhys Ifans as a threatened publisher and Bill Nighy as the new Minister of Magic. The adults are used most sparingly in the film. Even the villains, including Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory and Timothy Spall, are rarely glimpsed. The film features our three heroes alone for much of the run time, saddled with a somewhat repetitive, often perfunctory, script. Luckily, by this point they’re wonderful actors. I suppose growing up around all these supremely talented thespians will do wonders from a young actor.

But the rich ensemble is greatly missed, as are the magical riches of Craig’s sets for Hogwarts. I know they’ll be utilized to a far greater extent in the next installment, but that knowledge did little to ease the empty feeling where Hogwarts belongs. There’s a sense that the filmmakers, taking their cues from Rowling, are deliberately thwarting series-finale nostalgia by shaking up the form of the series, sending our characters adrift into the Muggle wilderness, hunted and stalked. Indeed, there are many affecting and effective moments to be found here. A memory-changing spell opens the film on a sad note, a daring infiltration into the Ministry of Magic is thrilling, a coffee shop shootout is tense, a small dance as a respite amidst danger is tender and touching, and a deadly dark cloud of fear that bursts forth from an evil enchantment sets the stage for a harrowing emotional high point for the film.

I’m sure that the film sets up the narrative and emotional points needed to launch into the conclusion proper. Having read the books, I can see that the filmmakers haven’t lost the thread of the plot. Having loved the movies, I can tell that the technical qualities of this entry are as good as any. What’s missing is a sense of shape, of drive, of a journey. So many of the books’ subplots have been stripped away from the previous adaptations that it’s hard to have a film that tries to make some of them matter without prior introduction. (Have we even seen the character Mundungus before?) The details don’t always feel properly relevant. We begin the film knowing that Harry and his friends are in danger from an increasingly powerful source of evil and end the film with little gained or lost. There are some nice moments, sure, but the film, as a whole, should feel a whole lot livelier. It leaves much to be desired. I don’t know what I was expecting, heading into the film knowing full well that this was only half a Harry Potter movie and fully aware that it would likely be a faithful adaptation of the dullest patch of plotting in the book series. As should have been expected, the film is the first of the series to not feel densely packed with characters, plot points, and magic.

Like the first several hundred pages of the book, Deathly Hallows Part 1 begins to set up a finale. Just as those pages alone would not make a satisfying book, this is not a satisfying film. After the full story is complete, the film could look retroactively rosier, but as of right now the experience of seeing the film is more than a little tedious. This film can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, stand alone, but I wish it did a little more to stand out as something better than a mere mechanical set-up for the forthcoming resolution. Sure, it’s nice to see these characters and this world once again, but I’m looking ahead. I’m looking forward to (hopefully) having more time to luxuriate in the world’s imaginative details, enjoy the deeply talented ensemble, and to experience the magic once again.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Early Gift: A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Last fall, there was something very odd about sitting in a state-of-the-art multiplex, wearing plastic 3D glasses, and watching a movie that is, in some ways, so thoroughly, reverentially, old-fashioned. A Christmas Carol is one of the most often retold stories, starting with Charles Dickens’s original story from the mid-1800’s and including at least one version for each generation afterwards. Now director Robert Zemeckis has taken cutting-edge Hollywood technology (the same motion-capture animation that he used in the brilliant Polar Express and the noble failure Beowulf) and put it to work on this old story, seemingly lifting most of the dialogue word-for-word from the original text. The sense of looking both backwards and forwards doesn’t distract from the story, however. I’ve heard it many times before. Who hasn’t? But by the end I was still elated for Scrooge and filled with goodwill and Christmas cheer.

The movie mostly follows the mood and spirit of the classic tale like clockwork, moving through the very familiar plot once again, but the dust doesn’t settle around the gears. Zemeckis uses long flowing shots that slide and glide. Many sequences play out in one long take. A marvelous trip through 19th century London is a stunning opening to the film, grounding the movie in an impressive sense of time and place. The encounters with the ghosts are likewise stunning, expressive and bold and sometimes quite frightening. Zemeckis doesn’t forget that this is a ghost story, using swiftly shifting scale, color, and movement to throw the viewer, and Scrooge, off balance. I’m thinking specifically of an extraordinarily well-done sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Present that finds the floor of a room becoming translucent, and then the room itself breaking free from the laws of physics to take Scrooge on a vertigo-inducing trip around London without him ever having to leave his house. Except for a slightly miscalculated sequence involving icicle-related slapstick, this is a film of amazing imagery and narrative fidelity.

Speaking of Scrooge, he’s creepy and crotchety, a great example of excellent character design. He’s wrinkled and elongated with long, bony fingers and a slightly crooked, pointy chin. Jim Carrey, as the performance-capture and voice of the character, does not, despite my worst fears, devolve the role into rubbery shtick. Instead, he remains, like the film itself, remarkably faithful to Dickens words, capably delivering the dialogue and intent behind it. (Though, to be fair, there’s a bit of Alastair Sim in his performance). Carrey also plays the ghosts quite well and the animation supports him superbly; each design is strong and striking, even appropriately haunting. The acting and animation excellence extends to the rest of the cast. Gary Oldman shows up in a handful of roles (including Marley, Mr. Cratchit and Tiny Tim) as do Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, and Robin Wright Penn. They all bring fine physicality and welcome voices.

Even though this is an oft-repeated story, it still moved me. Supported by his excellent cast and a stirring score from Alvin Silvestri, who weaves in rousing renditions of Christmas carols, Zemeckis dazzles visually. He’s always possessed the potential to be, and many times he has been, a great visual storyteller, and with this particular style of animation he has brought his visions to greater heights. Always an innovator, from the time he mixed hand-drawn animation into a neo-noir comedy in the masterful Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the CG tweaking of archival footage in Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has now found, for better or worse, the perfect expression for his technologically driven storytelling. Bringing his skills as a live-action director into a fully animated environment, he moves the camera in ways that would be impossible in the real world, but he rarely lets his technology merely show off. The stunning technique only underlines the story’s inherent compelling qualities. In this case, he creates an admirably faithful, and smart, adaptation of a great story. What’s old is new again. This scary ghost story and moving, comfortably warm Christmas chestnut feels at once fresh and timeless. It thrills and moves like I never thought a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol would or could.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Clickety-Clack: UNSTOPPABLE

Early in Unstoppable, two slacker train-yard workers (T.J. Miller and Ethan Suplee) fumblingly start a chain of events that leads to a large freight train carrying toxic chemicals going full speed and unmanned down the tracks. In the grand tradition of Speed and, well, Runaway Train, Unstoppable is an action film about a seemingly unstoppable force. The train blasts down the track, its constant chugging animating the soundtrack as a constant source of tension. It literally howls an animalistic roar as it blasts forward. The danger is omnipresent. This train is clearly on a collision course and when it crashes, it will be messy.

It’s directed by Tony Scott and so is, perhaps inevitably, filled with the kinds of stylistic ticks that he has accrued over the last several years. The camera jitters around while the editing cuts away mid-pan. There are tense little zooms that come out of nowhere. Color filters are intermittently applied. Shots slip out of focus, or start blurry just to be pulled sharply into extreme clarity. Quick frames of double-exposure or pops of white light show up intermittently. You’d think I’d consistently dislike all this busyness, but sometimes Scott puts it to good use. (I particularly enjoyed its deployment in such confidently preposterous actioners as 2005’s Domino and 2006’s Déjà vu). In Unstoppable, the train careening nonstop throughout provides enough of a steady stream of tension that his style here ends up distracting much less than it should.

Speaking of distracting less than it should, the ham-fisted screenplay by Mark Bomback is never afraid to spell out messages in capital letters. Corporations don’t care about people! Rosario Dawson spends the movie in a train control center, sweating out the crisis with safety expert Kevin Corrigan who (irony!) just happens to be visiting this day. She gets on the phone with higher ups (like Kevin Dunn) that are only worried about the bottom line. Repeat. Veteran train engineer Denzel Washington and rookie Chris Pine might have a good idea about how to stop the train. Higher ups don’t listen. Repeat! It’s a good thing the cast has such great charisma and unexpected chemistry. They make their often corny dialogue sound, well, not exactly natural, but somehow simply right.

When the plot ventures outside of the propulsive thrills of that crazy train, the movie is generally out of its comfort zone. Where the movie succeeds the most, though, is in its matter-of-fact moments, portrayals of people at work. It’s something approaching fascinating when the movie takes, even for just a few seconds, a look at the process of how trains work, to simply pay attention to how Dawson, Washington, and Pine are just doing their jobs on a day that happens to feature some particularly harrowing life-and-death decisions.

Where it’s most disappointing is in the cursory family subplots given to Washington and Pine. They’re our main protagonists, but Scott could have easily cut Washington’s two college-aged daughters waitressing at Hooters, especially the uncomfortable scene that cuts from his paternal concern to a close-up of their tight orange shorts. Also easily removed is a vaguely defined subplot about Pine’s estranged family life. Sure, it’s nice to know more about the characters, but not if the information will be dumped into the film indiscriminately. These scenes are just dead weight.

But this is a movie that’s always moving forward. There is always something happening. It may not be something that will be explained, but it will be something exciting, or, failing that, just something loud and frantic. Though it comes with plenty of potential for nitpicking, I must say that this is a fun movie. It’s a kinetic explosion of thrills that barrels along without a second thought given to nuance or meaning. This is cinema that is little more than pleasingly stupid and exciting.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quick Look: MORNING GLORY

Morning Glory is such a gentle, middling workplace comedy that it started to disappear from my memory even before it was over. If it weren’t for the lovely Rachel McAdams, the film would be even more forgettable than it already is. She plays an ambitious, energetic workaholic who lands a job producing a network’s low-rated morning show. She’s immediately overwhelmed, but confidently handles all the problems involved with balancing a tough boss (Jeff Goldblum), a flirty colleague (Patrick Wilson), and two difficult hosts (Diane Keaton and Ty Burrell). The film is light and fluffy as it evaporates. Director Roger Michell works from a screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, who is content to do little more than cannibalize her own far superior script for The Devil Wears Prada while making a softheaded version of James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News. Morning Glory runs through standard comedy and romance tropes with minimal energy and it carries a bad aftertaste. Most of the movie is given over to McAdams’s attempts to raise the profile of her show by convincing a veteran newsman (a serious, scowling Harrison Ford) to join the staff as a new anchor. It’s a real he says she says. He says that he doesn’t want to participate in dumbing down the news. She says loosen up. When it ends, literally walking off into the sunset, the movie hasn’t resolved the central conflict, ignoring the very battle for the soul of the modern news media that it introduces. If the movie weren’t so blandly competent and entirely inoffensive in every other way, I’d be much more inclined to hate it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Quick Look: INSIDE JOB

In 2007, documentarian Charles Ferguson released No End in Sight, the definitive chronicle of the early days of the Iraq war. His follow up, Inside Job, uses much of what made that earlier film great. This documentary calmly and with great clarity peels back the layers of disinformation and obfuscation to compile a carefully researched portrait of the worldwide economic crisis that exploded in late 2008 and has left us stranded in a recession ever since. With incredible interviews and expert use of visual aids, narrated by a somber Matt Damon, the facts and statistics have never looked so damning. This film is a downpour of information that takes the mostly superficial reporting that has been done thus far and presents it as a unified whole. This is the big picture displayed in a masterful documentary that is stunningly thorough. It’s beautifully photographed, crisply edited, and skillfully assembled. Truth really is stranger than fiction; this is what was entertainingly and messily fictionalized in the mildly disappointing Wall Street 2. This is the true story of the booms and busts and meltdowns and bailouts of the last decade, and the decades of market manipulation that made it possible. The depth of investigation is impressive. Just how “free” is our free market? While the full extent of the comprehensive reporting produced by the film is certainly too much to fully explicate here, it is safe to say that the thoroughly deregulated greed of the financial industry has a symbiotic death-grip on our country’s politics. Obscene riches are built on deception and willful ignorance. The income gap in this country is rarely so starkly shown. When the film ended, I remained in my seat for a few minutes, infuriated and emotional, trying to catch my breath and still my hands. Here is a documentary that has to power to leave you literally shaken. It smashes past easy ideologically driven answers and arrives at something cogent, frustrating, and deeply felt. Inside Job is the best, most complete look at this crisis that I’ve so far encountered. It’s far more essential and far more satisfying than the usual financial reporting. This is a truly indispensible work of journalism. This is a bleakly funny true-crime documentary, terrifying and maddening.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On the Road Again: DUE DATE

After last year’s runaway success with The Hangover, it’s not a surprise to see that director Todd Phillips’s latest film, Due Date, is cut from the same cloth. It’s an aggressive comedy that careens from one comic moment to the next. It spends the entirety of its runtime throwing vulgarity, violence and non-sequiturs at the audience in a nonstop onslaught. It’s comedy of shocks and giggles.

Unlike The Hangover, though, Due Date feels creakier. It’s lumpily formed around the same basic buddy-movie road-trip format that has been around since at least the time Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were always on the road to somewhere. This particularly iteration uses a plot device put to good use in John Hughes’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a film Todd Phillips and his co-writers Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel, must know pretty well. Two dissimilar men are forced to drive cross-country on a deadline. It’s a nice hook on which to hang a plot.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays an architect, a mostly accidental jerk who has to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles to be with his wife (Michelle Monaghan) for the birth of their first child. We know he needs to be taught humility because he talks rapid-fire into a cell phone. Zach Galifianakis is a socially awkward weirdo who happens to be going through some painful grief on his way to L.A. to become an actor. We know he’s a potentially annoying combination of pretentious and oblivious because he wears a scarf.

The two of them get caught up in a misunderstanding that leads to their placement on the No Fly List. Naturally, they decide to rent a car and make the cross-country drive together. This only exaggerates their respective quirks. Downey grows meaner. Galifianakis seems ever stranger. Their personalities are on a collision course, but if you can’t tell by now that they’ll grow to respect each other, you’ve never seen a road trip movie before.

You’d think locking two of our most compelling actors, both of them equally blessed with the gift of seemingly effortless comedic timing, into a car for the duration of a film would produce better results. These two men, plenty funny on their own, display some nice chemistry, but the movie lets them down. It’s clumpy and episodic with the two guys interacting with cameo after cameo, but even worse, the characters never come to life. They begin as flat, one-dimensional types and end the same way, moving about from scene to scene with little change to be found. Along the route the movie is sloppily disengaged without control of tone, expecting the audience to quickly shift from laughing at the characters to feeling overpowering sympathy, often within the blink of an eye.

Even though it disappoints scene to scene, the movie nonetheless gives off a sufficiently pleasant feeling as it unspools. After all, though given little to work with, Downey and Galifianakis are fun to watch. Even when the movie is giving them ridiculously unbelievable episodes to act out, the two of them can almost make it work. It’s the kind of movie that’s just diverting enough to more or less keep me from realizing how much I wasn’t enjoying it. The instant the end credits started, the illusion collapsed.

Love and Death: HEREAFTER

In Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s latest feature, we follow three separate stories in which people that are forced to confront death find nothing but endless questions filling their restless minds. There’s the French journalist (Cécile de France) who is caught in a natural disaster. There are the London-dwelling twin boys (Frankie and George McLaren) who are about to experience a death in the family. Then there’s the Californian psychic (Matt Damon) who can communicate with the dead; the briefest touch of a stranger gives him visions of blurry blue-gray figures that wish to communicate. Each encounter leaves the characters rattled. The journalist can’t keep her mind on her work. The boys are forced to cope with a painful loss that can’t be understood. The psychic has long since stopped giving readings; each communication is simply too painful, too distressing. They all just want to be whole again, to live normal lives, but the mysteries of life and death are too insistent and persistent.

It’s to Eastwood’s credit, and to the credit of Peter Morgan’s screenplay, messy though it is, that this is a film uninterested in forcing answers to these questions. This is a film about wondering, about searching, about grasping for answers where certainty is an utter impossibility. How does one live a full life after a glimpse into death? France can’t concentrate on her job. McLaren’s yearning for answers leads to an increasing feeling of solitude. For Damon’s character the burden is the heaviest. He cannot make a human connection without the risk of feeling all of another’s past pain.

This shaken yearning from the leads causes the film to feel more than a little inert. There’s no momentum here. There are no clear objectives. This is a quiet and deliberate (some may say “plodding”) rumination and it has some lovely character moments. The scenes between Damon and a potential love interest, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, play out with tender suspense. The dazed feeling written on France’s face as she goes back to work still haunted by her experience is palpable. Other scenes fall flat, like moments involving a poorly cast Jay Mohr as Damon’s brother or a montage of con artists who are cashing in on their pretended psychic powers. Indeed, by the end of the film the plotting, which already seemed to feel some strain while moving between the various storylines, seems to fizzle out.

But this is not a film primarily concerned with plot. This is a film of mood and pondering, with characters that come face to face with death and are deeply shaken by it. Eastwood has once again surrounded himself with capable artists and craftspeople that have created a film with a simple, professional shine, like the team of special effects artists that provides a mostly astonishing natural disaster with which to open the film and director of photography Tom Stern, who gives the film a cold glow. Eastwood is not a flashy visual stylist. He sets up his shots simply and unobtrusively to frame the dialogue and whenever he stretches to show a few unclear seconds of a foggy hereafter, he doesn’t always achieve the needed effect.

Even so, the primal power of the topic pushes the film forward. This is a film that boldly and uneasily takes on the subject of death. It’s not conventionally satisfying, and a bit confused. But it’s compelling enough with scenes of strong feeling and a gripping, futile longing for the comfort of certainty.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Super Bad: MEGAMIND

These days, as long as an animated production has a large supply of studio money flowing in, the movie will at the very least look amazing. That’s the case with Megamind, the latest disappointment from Dreamworks Animation, which is nonetheless blest with bright primary colors and detailed designs. Director Todd McGrath, who previously co-directed the two lame Madagascars, and screenwriters Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons bring little of interest to the story, which is little more than warmed-over scraps from better animation studios’ far superior efforts. It’s takes the superhero comedy of Pixar’s The Incredibles and the inept supervillain plot of Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me and then drains them of wit, speed, and likability.

In fact, it’s hard not to think of the creatively underachieving Dreamworks Animation as Megamind begins with two alien infants fleeing a cataclysmic event, essentially flying through a parody of Superman’s first act on their way to Earth. One is a handsome little tyke for whom it’s all smooth sailing, landing gently under a wealthy couple’s Christmas tree. The other is a blue boy with a bulbous head who has a rocket that clatters through an asteroid field and lands in a prison. They grow up to be superpowered nemeses with the charmed life of hero Metroman (Brad Pitt) being a source of envy for the clumsily diabolical Megamind (Will Ferrell) who constantly wonders how that guy sails effortlessly to acclaim while he has to stew in the shadows. It’s easy to think that the creative team at Dreamworks would have reason to sympathize with Megamind, since their films are so critically underwhelming while their closest rival Pixar puts out films that are consistently acclaimed.

I would have been only too happy to praise Dreamworks latest film. In fact, earlier this year their How to Train Your Dragon was a film that was pleasantly surprising, great fun and the best film they’ve ever produced. (Though maybe the credit should mostly go to Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who definitely left their auteuerist mark on the project.) Megamind, on the other hand, is basically indefensible. It’s sluggish and grating with flat, uninspired vocal performances that sometimes inspire stiff animation. It’s also a film with thin characterization and a deeply uninteresting plot that does little to encourage an atmosphere of fun. It plays like a creation from people who know all the notes to hit when creating a family film but they can’t for the life of them actually figure out how to play the song.

Despite its visually precise and often lovely to regard locations and textures - I especially liked a moment when thousands of flying robots form a face in the sky - this is a nearly unfathomably uninvolving movie. It plays out in fits and starts of clichés and halfhearted jokes. The main battle-of-good-and-evil plot gets off to a fairly promising start with a sequence that finds Megamind, along with his talking fish (David Cross), finally besting Metroman and reacting like a dog that has for once actually caught the car he was chasing. He has no idea what to do next. The filmmakers are right there with him.

Early promise is squandered on a squirmy love-triangle between a disguised Megamind and a sloppy cameraman (Jonah Hill) battling for the affections of a local news reporter (Tina Fey). This plotline then becomes needlessly convoluted with a wholly unconvincing attempt to jump-start the superpowered conflicts. The characters are simply not defined enough to feel convincing. The stakes aren’t imbued with any real sense of danger. Even when the big climax comes and characters are literally swinging buildings around, I found it of some small visual interest but entirely empty of emotion.
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