Thursday, June 30, 2011

Loud Noises: TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

At the center of these Transformers movies are the perfect metaphors for describing them, huge incompressible shape shifting junk heaps that occasionally assemble into aesthetically pleasing vehicles. Aren’t these movies essential just that, occasionally pleasing junk? Directed by Michael Bay at his what was then his most excessive, the first movie, from 2007, might be his best movie. It’s a triumph of machinery, both the creatures and the Hollywood mechanisms of their birth, the kinds of gleaming metal and kinetic action that Bay has always focused on. Here they become the goofiest, most explosive expression of his style, his canted angles and saturated colors that turn every shot into a music-video/advertisement hybrid, popping each shot with the crisp vibrancy of slick commercialism. The controlled chaos fell into disproportionate anarchy with the sequel, 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen. That film, though still capable of fleeting moments that are visually striking, was tonally incoherent and offensively stereotypical on most every level.

Here we go again, with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which splits the difference between the two approaches to the same material. This time, it’s in 3D, which at least serves to slow down Bay’s typically rapid-fire editing, if only by a few blinks per shot. The spectacle has to wait, though. For a good hour, perhaps even 90 minutes, Bay spins his wheels with crude humor, offensive stereotypes, and endless, elaborate setup.

Shia LaBeouf, having saved the world twice, is out looking for a job, jealous that his glamorous girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a former Victoria’s Secret model in her first acting job) is getting so much attention from her sleazy boss (Patrick Dempsey). The job search is a bit of a stall while the robots gather up the plot points that will lead to eventual mayhem, though it gives screen time to a self-amused John Malkovich, and a small role for Ken Jeong that is both racist and homophobic at the same time. As for the elaborate romantic setup, it never really pays off, unless you’re so inclined to count the huge close-up 3D shot of Huntington-Whiteley’s rear end walking up a flight of stairs that serves as her first appearance.

Meanwhile, the Autobots (those are the good guys) are still working with the military, led by Josh Duhamel, to sniff out Decepticons (those are the bad guys) but also blow up terrorists for some reason. The movie joylessly gives us an unintentionally hilarious description of said terrorists’ hideout as “Illegal Middle Eastern Nuclear Site.” Phew. As long as it’s illegal. That’s a sequence that wouldn’t look too out-of-place in Team America: World Police.

Taking a break from working for America, the Autobots just uncovered some top-secret stuff about the true reasons behind the U.S./Russian space race of the 60’s and the nuclear meltdown of Chernobyl. I’m normally untroubled by seeing alternate history in pop sci-fi (this summer’s X-Men uses the Cuban Missile Crisis to good effect) but here it comes off sleazy and uncomfortable, especially with waxy CGI presidents (Kennedy, Nixon, and even Obama) mixed in with the tweaked historical footage. Later, the movie will take visual cues from the Challenger disaster and 9/11. Ugh.

Moving on, there’s a lot to slog through. Buzz Aldrin cameos playing himself, staring up at Optimis Prime, the leader of the Autobots while admitting that, yes, there is indeed an ancient hibernating transformer (Leonard Nimoy) buried on the moon. Bill O’Reily has an interminably smug cameo needling John Turturro’s grating ex-government official. (I pause here to note that the reliably funny Alan Tudyk plays Turturro’s assistant). Frances McDormand collects a paycheck as an Intelligence chief interested in letting the ‘bots find and collect the long-dormant tech off of the moon. In a movie called Transformers: Dark of the Moon we get far too few Transformers and very little moon for all of this time. The movie is scene after scene of humans setting up what we all really want to see: stuff blowing up real good. The first film was actually a competent teen comedy that shifted effortlessly into a goofy sci-fi explosion of action, but after those giant robots have been slamming around writer Ehren Kruger has had no idea how to make just normal people interesting. To be fair he didn’t write the first movie, just the bad second two. All this human setup would be excusable in smaller, more economical doses, or if the robots’ plots made any sense whatsoever.

I won’t take this opportunity to dissect the many ways the logic of the various robot plans do not work. Instead, I will reflect on the fact that giant, largely indistinguishable robots are roaming the planet causing all kinds of ruckus and they’re still supposedly a secret. These creatures are also apparently intuitive geniuses, able to predict the plans of their enemies to an astonishingly accurate level. Take a scene wherein some rolling metal robots emerge to attack Shia on a highway, which leads to a striking 3D composition in which a car unfolds into a Transformer from around its passenger, beats back debris, then turns back into a car with the passenger returned safely to his seat. It makes not a lick of sense and I couldn’t tell you what this brief action sequence accomplishes in terms of plot or who did what to who and why, but it sure looked good for that brief moment.

For all I really disliked about the endless set-up, I was shocked to find that the pay-off almost, almost, made up for it. The action in the last hour or so moves to Chicago where Decepticons are taking over the city for some reason. Humans, after standing by powerless, and Autobots, after cowardly hiding while humans were massacred, roll into town to fight back. The resulting distended urban warfare action set piece is surprisingly effective. It’s well paced and mostly comprehensible, or at least there are clear goals that must be accomplished for the good guys to win. Chicago is thoroughly cluttered in the process. There’s a nifty Decepticon that’s like a metal Sarlacc pit on wheels. There’s good use of 3D to enhance huge drops and dips between skyscrapers. It’s dumb, loud summery sound and fury, and it works on a brute force level. One nearly great sequence with a teetering skyscraper, for example, has nice cliffhanger inventiveness. Bay may often make awkward, frighteningly tone-deaf films, but, when he’s using his eye for forcefully effective action imagery, I’d rather see a pure Michael Bay film than someone else trying to crib from his bag of tricks, like the thoroughly awful Battle: Los Angeles from earlier this year.

I didn’t end up leaving the theater completely hating Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but it’s only because the last hour distracted me from the opening 90 minutes. Upon reflection, dissatisfaction settles in along with the convoluted plot’s sheer idiocy and memory of the horrendous human plot with its endless failed attempts at humor. So, just good enough to very nearly distract from how bad it is, there’s a backhanded compliment for you.

Bad Movie: BAD TEACHER

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is mean, deceitful, and superficial. She enters each and every social situation with only one goal: getting out with whatever will benefit her the most. She’s also a middle-school teacher, the kind that sleeps behind the desk and shows movies everyday. She is the eponymous Bad Teacher. When she’s not skating by, doing the bare minimum required, she’s romantically pursuing the hot substitute with a rich family (Justin Timberlake) while being pursued by the sweet, kind of dumpy gum teacher (Jason Segel).

This sounds like a high-quality setup for a comedy, especially with this usually charming cast, but it’s just not funny. In Elizabeth Halsey, Cameron Diaz, who can be a great comedienne, gets a part that is certainly a more inherently interesting character than she usually gets to sink her teeth into. The problem is the central miscalculation that we'll care about this character just because she's unrepentantly bad, dressing provocatively, swearing, drinking, doing drugs, behaving recklessly. I don't care that she misbehaves because she goes about it for entirely unremarkable reasons.

First, she wants to get a breast augmentation and decides to save up for it, embezzling and lying her way into more cash. Then, she decides to go after the rich sub. Then, she hears about a bonus for the teacher with the class with the highest test scores, so she wants to become a great teacher long enough to get the cash prize. With all these competing selfish motivations laid out in a flat, unremarkable way it’s hard to get a hold of any one tangible reason to care.

The plot's just a shambles that can't be saved by the actors who are given thin unconvincing characters to play. Supporting characters appear and disappear with oddly inconsequential wispiness despite funny work being done by Phillis Smith, Lucy Punch, John Michael Higgins, Thomas Lennon, and Eric Stonestreet. They drop in and out of the plot with alarming unpredictability. Where do they go when they aren’t showing up to do their required bits? There’s no sense that any of these characters have lives that exist outside the frame.

If the tone weren’t as messy as the plot, I’d be more inclined to cut it some slack. The screenplay by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, of The Office, is neither mean enough nor sweet enough. They want to have their bile and excuse it away too. This is a particularly strange flaw since director Jake Kasdan usually gets the balance right, like in his underrated teen comedy Orange County, underseen showbiz satire The TV Set, or his biopic parody Walk Hard, which manages the difficult feat of mocking while still finding ways to be moving. Bad Teacher just doesn’t work, which is all the more disappointing since it seems to have all the raw materials of a movie that would actually be funny.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Downshift: CARS 2

It is a testament to Pixar’s consistent level of excellence that their Cars 2, a movie I more or less enjoyed watching, feels like a disappointment. It’s a movie that’s fast, colorful, frenetic, and funny, but gone is the deeper feeling we’ve come to expect of productions from this company. This is all surface level whiz-bang silliness, highly watchable and fairly entertaining but also Pixar’s worst effort thus far.

It’s all in what you compare it to, I suppose. After an impressive string of masterworks (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up among them), broken only by some relatively weaker entries that were merely pretty great (A Bug’s Life, Cars), Pixar has built a reputation for consummate craftsmanship, movies that entertain with great flair and originality while also managing to emote with a precision built on surprising grace and beauty. They’re gorgeously animated and layered films with heavy emotional content – a post-apocalyptic romance, a widower fighting the march of time, abandonment – handled tactfully and powerfully.

The first Cars wasn’t one of Pixar’s crowning achievements but it sure was fun. It takes place in a world much like our own but instead of a human populace there are fleets of vehicles with wide eyes staring out of clear windshields and bumpers twisting about like lips. It’s odd and off-putting at first, but in motion and in an involving plot, it all seems so natural. When I pushed toy cars across my childhood bedroom did I ever imagine people inside them? I don’t think so. For all I know, the cars themselves were racing each other all on their own. Cars has an egotistical racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) zoom into Radiator Springs, a crumbling small town, and discover the slower pleasures of roadside Americana. It’s a movie about nostalgia versus modernity that comes down on the side of progress while still arguing for embracing what got us there.

Cars 2 has no deeper ambitions. If anything, it works to refute the stop-and-smell-the-roses relaxed pace of its predecessor. This film is proudly childish as it slams cars around in zippy action sequences driven by a silly round-the-world spy story. Surprisingly satisfying in its dizzying tangles of plot, events are kicked off by British secret agent car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) dangerously and daringly discovering something of grave import aboard a menacing oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Soon enough, we learn that an eccentric billionaire (Eddie Izzard) has decided to promote his new alternative fuel by throwing a World Grand Prix, inviting the best racers from around the world. The race is on, which gets Lightning McQueen and his best friend, hick tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), out of town and circling the globe.

Stops in Japan, France, Italy, and England provide the backbone of the plot, which is mostly an excuse for a diversity of deeply detailed backgrounds. Japan’s Tokyo is rendered as a world of little Hondas zipping around a bustling neon metropolis. A coastal village in Italy is a lush town where a little car speaks with the big voice of legendary Italian actor Franco Nero (!) and the boats in the harbor sit there pleasantly bobbing and blinking. In Paris, Notre Dame is encrusted with winged cars for saints and gargoyles, while in London the royal car family rolls up with their Land Rover bodyguards. It’s so very weird. Unlike the first film, during which I found myself unquestioningly accepting vehicular anthropomorphism, this time around I found myself wondering how cars managed to do just about anything, from building cathedrals to writing with pencils. And why would cars have to go through a metal detector in an airport? It’s a tribute to the nutty mise en scène, the total commitment to a truly strange concept, that endless unanswerable questions encroach every shot from all angles.

At each stop on the world tour, antics and action are around every corner. McQueen deals with his competition, like a hotshot Italian racecar (with a zooming, motor-mouth patter from a crazed and goofy John Turturro) in what ultimately becomes a glorified subplot. Meanwhile, in the main plot McMissile and his curvy assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake sweet, dumb Mater for a fellow spy. The plot’s strictly pro forma, not much more or less than an adequate Bond picture when you get down too it, though I liked the evil cabal made up of, well, I guess I won’t spoil it, but the makes and models of the villains are a fun concept. As the story zooms along, the spies take precedence over the racers.

Mater, with his deep accent and unfortunate misunderstandings, gets increasingly wearing the more the film gets tied to his character and sidelines the infinitely more charming McQueen for far too long. Good in small doses, like his moments of comic relief in the first Cars, Mater is overused here. As much fun as the detail and speed of the humor, the action, and the locations are, less enjoyable are the few attempts to make it all mean something. We’re supposed to laugh at Mater and feel bad about it too. There’s a Life Lesson here, but it feels forced and unconvincing. Nevertheless, Cars 2 has a fast pace and it goes down smoothly. It’s a pleasant diversion. Lots of gags hit their marks, though countless others miss entirely, and the gun-toting, bomb-throwing cars make for unlikely, but often awfully satisfying, action heroes.

After churning out so many outstanding movies it’s a shame to see that here Pixar has slipped in overall quality, but it’s clear from what’s seen on screen that it’s not for lack of trying. It’s incredibly detailed animation with meticulous sound design and mostly fantastic voice work; in typical Pixar fashion it looks and sounds absolutely wonderful. It’s light, inconsequential fun. It feels somewhat difficult to criticize Pixar’s team for trying something different, using their technical skills for something less meaningful. If it seems like I’m holding Pixar to a higher standard than I would any other animated company, it’s only because they’ve conditioned me to expect so much more than they offer here. And yet Cars 2 feels very much like exactly the kind of movie that they wanted to make, a broad, silly, punny, busy kids’ movie. I simply had a passably fun time, is that so bad? In this case, it almost feels that way.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Photo Shoot: BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

When I walked out onto the sidewalk after seeing Bill Cunningham New York it was almost as if I was seeing the world through new eyes. I was really looking at the other people walking these same sidewalks. I had a new awareness of those sharing space on the planet with me, how they were dressed, how they carried themselves. This effect wasn’t achieved through any formal trickery or filmmaking fantasy in the documentary. No, this sense of a retrained eye came from mere exposure to Bill Cunningham. This film offers a chance to spend time with a fascinating fellow and emerge feeling richer for the experience.

To call Bill Cunningham a fashion photographer would be a great understatement. He’s a fashion chronicler. The 83-year-old photographer has, since 1978, created a feature for The New York Times called “On the Street” which captures people, both well known and unknown, wearing the clothes they happened to put on for that particular day. Bill rides around New York City on his bicycle, wearing a blue smock with his camera draped around his neck. When he spots someone with an interesting or striking outfit or accessory he leaps into action, framing and documenting whatever it is that jumps out at him. He says he uses his lens like a pen. He’s not just a photographer, he’s a scribbler, a compiler, a man with a loving and generous eye for the way we wear what we wear. His longevity allows him to spot not only striking images but to bring trends and patterns to the forefront and draw connection to the trends and patterns of fashion past.

Rather than proceeding like a purely biographical documentary, scrupulously chronological and lots of talking heads, director Richard Press lets us get to know Bill primarily by observing him. We talk to neighbors, friends, and colleagues and watch snippets of archival footage, but observing Bill often tells us the most. Like a great long-form magazine profile, the film drops in on the life of a fascinating person and allows the experience to reveal rare corners of everyday life. Why, this man is out on the streets of New York day in and day out and how often does he go entirely unnoticed to so many who walk by?

What a mere profile would never reveal is what a joy it is to be around him. How could words ever capture the way his eyes light up when he speaks, the infectiousness of his crinkly smile, the speed and level of alertness he displays as he races to catch a photograph of the latest outfit to catch his eye? He’s thin and unassuming. He’s gentle and loving. He’s generous with his time. In fact, here’s a man who gets to spend every single waking moment consumed by his life’s great passion. From the outside, it appears that he’s living exactly the life he wants to. He’s a humble, happy artist who never once seems to take advantage of the acclaim and access he has achieved. When he accepts an award in Paris, his acceptance speech is a thoroughly charming jumble of French and English that ends in tears. Reader, I got teary right along with him.

The glimpses of his interior life that can be gleaned from the documentary don’t dull the outward impressions. Rather, they paint a complicated portrait of a man who has been so driven for so long that he wouldn’t know any other way to live. He has a small rent-controlled apartment that is filled with file cabinets containing all of his negatives. He has a sparse wardrobe. About his meals he has this to say: “The cheaper the better.” When asked, in a particularly vulnerable and revealing scene, about love, about spirituality, and about his relationships thereof, he tears up. Rather than prying, the documentarian backs off and lets the silence speak for itself. Do we know exactly what Bill is thinking? No. But somehow it just feels better that way. After all, a picture is most definitely worth a thousand words, especially for a man who serves day in and day out as a mirror, happiest when showing us ourselves.


Anything Goes: MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

Note: Many critics have no problem launching into spoiler territory while discussing this film, but I’ll keep it relatively spoiler free here, discussing themes and plot in such a way as to preserve the surprise of utterly splendid paths the movie takes.

Who could have guessed that the most transporting fantasy of the summer would take place in a film that never really leaves the real world? Woody Allen’s latest, his forty-first film, is Midnight in Paris, a wholly enveloping diversion, a pleasantly layered delight. It presents Paris as a city of real magic with an irresistible draw that pulls in anyone on the right wavelength. I must admit that I fell in love with the city myself while on a school trip last year. It’s a city of such beauty, such fine art, and with a clear, direct sense of connection to times gone by, a city that I felt had always resided in my soul, that I found myself nodding with agreement when a character in the film mentions that Paris just might be the hottest spot in the universe.

Allen opens his film with a dreamy tourist’s gaze. He draws his film slowly and patiently into being with a loving sightseeing montage that looks, really looks, at Paris. It’s plain to see why it’s so easy to fall in love with this city, the cobblestone streets, the stunning architecture, and the extraordinary sights around every corner. It’s also easy to see why a self-proclaimed Hollywood hack like Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) would want to use his visit as the perfect opportunity to buckle down and finish his first novel. His fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) would rather zip along on a tight schedule to shop and taste wine. They’re not attuned to the magic of their surroundings. “If I see one more charming bistro…” the fiancé grumbles.

Gil’s not like his future in-laws. He lets the city simmer in his psyche. He knows the place has great magic. He reveres the Paris of the 20’s, a time when American artists of all kinds showed up to create masterpieces, and sees himself, the struggling author that he is, as one of a long, continuous line of talents living, partying, and creating during their time as Parisians. Gil is so inspired that one night he leaves his fiancé and her finicky pseudo-intellectual friends (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) behind just to wander the city, to get his creative energy sizzling and buzzing. Paris contains such magic in this film that when a car pulls up and partygoers wave at him and ask him to join them not only does he go along, he finds only ever more to delight and surprise him. When he ends up at a party where everyone is dressed in 20’s garb and a man is playing Cole Porter songs at a piano, why, it only seems natural that he’s fallen immediately into the right crowd.

While his increasingly befuddled family resign themselves to letting him wander off to enjoy himself, he gets to mingle with all manner of Parisians. Wilson plays the part of the yearning nostalgic neurotic artist perfectly with the right blend of anxiety and affability. He comes into contact with all sorts of interesting characters, a gruff, manly writer (Corey Stoll), a socialite (Alison Pill) and her author husband (Tom Hiddleston), a gorgeous fashionable muse (Marion Cotillard), a self-absorbed surrealist (Adrien Brody), and a warm, encouraging editor (Kathy Bates), among many others.

This is a love-drunk fan letter to Paris, literature, and art that makes for a casually dense, parable-like tale that’s a warm rebuke and sentimental smirk to nostalgia and a loving embrace of all that makes us human. Here’s a film that falls in love with a city that forever repays that love. Here’s a film that says artists are human, heroes are flawed, and yet can’t creating and experiencing art be a source of endless joy? One simply can’t live in the past, but isn’t it pretty to think so? To create is to look forwards and backwards at once, a tricky prospect. Here Allen has made a film that seems to do just that for him. It pulls together some of his favorite themes (artists, art, relationships) and passions (literature, jazz, history) and repackages them in ways new and surprising, comforting and familiar.

The beauty of the film is that it can be so thoughtful, philosophical even, and yet so utterly transporting, so completely and utterly entertaining that the outside world melts away for a while. It’s the flat out funniest picture Allen’s made in one or two decades. It’s a grand hug of a film that loves France, loves art, loves love and only grows richer the more you are able to catch the historical references. It’s a sort of romantic comedy, but it succeeds by treating the romance as almost a side-thought. It’s an artful, sweet tourist’s fantasy that succeeds by being so matter-of-fact about its movie magic. What a wonderful film! I practically floated out of the theater with the film resonating so deeply and beautifully, filling me with total joy. Living in the present might not always be so beautiful, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Not Easy Being Green: GREEN LANTERN

It’s the summer of Marvel superheroes at the multiplex. So far we’ve had Thor and the X-Men lighting up the screens and Captain America is well on his way. Interrupting Marvel’s monopolistic hold over our superhero-movie dollars is DC’s Green Lantern. They shouldn’t have bothered. It pales in comparison to its recent genre competition, but it also emerges as one of the leading contenders for worst-of-the-year. Not only that, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most joyless, eccentrically idiotic superhero movies ever made.

It starts on a wobbly promising note with the soothing voice of Geoffrey Rush playing over a CGI lightshow. He tells us all about the history of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force that draws energy from willpower (which is manifested in the color green, in case you didn’t know). It’s all well and good, with green-suited creatures floating around, until a long-vanquished enemy, a nasty brown cloud of roiling evil, returns to feed on fear. He – she? it? – slurps up yellow tendrils of emotion from its victims leaving behind only a brown shell of a cadaver.

I was on board for this sci-fi silliness, no problem. I can handle a bit of cheese with my spectacle. But the instant this movie sets foot on Earth, the whole balance of the tone collapses. Ryan Reynolds plays Hal Jordan, a hotshot ladies’ man test pilot who cavalierly wrecks a fighter jet and twinkles at his love interest (Blake Lively) until he finds a dying alien (Temuera Morrison) who gives him a ring that makes him the newest member of the Green Lantern Corps. Reynolds, who is occasionally quite good in other movies, has a kind of blandly likable presence that crumbles under the demands of this film. His sort-of-sweet, sort-of-smirking persona can’t handle placement within a superheroic context.

Of course, the film itself is of no help whatsoever to him. This is a curiously uncontrolled picture with tone careening all over the place. It’s at once a self-serious story loaded with fake-complex alien rules and regulations and a self-mocking mess with lines like “You think I won’t recognize you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” And it’s all so glum and lifeless, devoid of tension as it blunders from one anti-climax to the next. Once Hal Jordan zooms off to twinkling, goofy Lantern-land, he quickly decides he doesn’t like his powers, or maybe he just doesn’t like being scolded by a pink-skinned alien (Mark Strong). He doesn’t seem to understand that the green ring gives him the power to conjure up whatever he decides to create with his mind. When he finally uses his powers, it’s so horribly dull. He conjures a giant Hot Wheels racetrack to boomerang a crashing helicopter away from a fancy party. He creates swords, giant guns, a catapult. He can create anything, but is predictably Earthbound in his thinking.

He sulks back to Earth and then decides, hey, he may as well use this power now that he has it. It’s such a weirdly uncommitted, half-hearted plot that seems to feature CG spectacle almost by accident while on Earth and then seems to approximate human emotions only by happenstance while roaming the cosmos. For a movie that zips across the entire galaxy there’s a curious lack of stakes. The aforementioned cloud of evil is threatening the entire galaxy – the Earth itself is about to be slurped up before too long – and yet there’s hardly a sense that anyone’s actually in any danger. Ryan Reynolds, especially, just floats around like a face placed on a computerized green body without any sense that he’s actually physically participating in the fantasy.

Also along for this interminable dud is a criminally misused supporting cast. Of Blake Lively, so devastatingly described by The Onion as being at the “top of the lists of names you hear,” the less said the better. Let me just say that to call her acting wooden would be an insult to the block of wood that could have put in a better performance. There are good actors floundering here, too, though. Geoffrey Rush puts in time as the voice of a fish-faced Green Lantern. Peter Sarsgaard shows up as a mad scientist who grows a bulging brain, much to the chagrin of his senator father played by Tim Robbins. They try to chew some scenery, but never get the chance to work up a nice chomping pace. Poor Angela Bassett fares even worse as a fellow scientist who is made to recite expositional lines with a uniformly flat affect. These four performers (three of them Oscar nominated) are such usually excellent thespians that they could probably turn up in an excellent movie together now that they’ve collected these hopefully sizable paychecks.

This is a sad, pitiful, goopy green movie that looks absolutely dismal. It’s uninspired, certainly, but it also has visuals that are dim, murky, and chintzy and I saw it in 2D. I can’t imagine how much worse it is in 3D. To make a bad experience worse, there’s so little of interest happening in this gaudy glop of a movie. It’s a terminally undercooked experience. So little seems to happen on a plot level, an emotional level, a filmmaking level. Director Martin Campbell, who in the past has been know to make a fine action movie (most recently Casino Royale, quite possibly the best James Bond movie ever made), handles the mushy stew of words that four credited writers slapped into a screenplay with uncharacteristic flatness. The whole film just sits on the screen for a while until it finally gasps into its end credits. It has the feel of a franchise nonstarter, which is just as well, since given what I just sat through, I never never never want to see Green Lantern 2.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Close Encounters: SUPER 8

Super 8 is a refreshing kind of summer blockbuster. Unlike so many films of its kind in recent years, even some of the ones I’ve more or less enjoyed, this film is not content with merely hooking up the audience to a machine that sends out periodic jolts of approximated entertainment. It plays out smoothly and enjoyably telling a real, heartfelt, self-contained story without overstaying it’s welcome, setting up potential sequels, or orienting itself within a larger fictional context. This is a story of recognizable human characters that feel relatable, realistic emotions amidst mysterious sci-fi goings-on that unspool at a varied pace with peaks and valleys instead of hammering out with a degree of groaning regularity. I wouldn’t call it perfect, but it is perfectly entertaining. This is crowd-pleasing, moist-eyed, pulse-elevating pop filmmaking par excellence.

Writer-director J.J. Abrams, who honed his genre bona fides in television before creatively reinvigorating big franchises with Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek, has set Super 8 in the late 1970’s, the time of his early adolescence. Hardly autobiographical in the broad-strokes of the plotline, it nonetheless feels intensely personal in the details. At the core of the film is a group of young teens who are shooting a zombie movie that they have self-consciously styled after the films of George A. Romero and John Carpenter and are filming using a parent’s super-8 camera. Abrams, who has often told similar stories of his own boyhood filmmaking, clearly knows the territory, the rush of giddy creativity and naïveté that comes from such endeavors. There’s a sense of creative discovery in these characters even as they set out to reproduce the beloved films of their cinematic influences.

Funnily enough, that’s precisely what Abrams is up to here as well. This isn’t merely the late 70’s. This is the late 70’s as reflected through the films Abrams loved at the time. There’s a heavy influence of early Steven Spielberg (the man serves as an executive producer too, putting a stamp of approval on Abrams’s nods) and his films – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. – to this picture in the family dynamics, the high-powered flashlights, the casual normality of the settings, the evocatively-lit small-town-Ohio safety that’s splashed with dangerous flashes of suspense. It has a warm, soft color palate spiked with cold blues and grays. Here and there are also echoes of Spielberg’s contemporaries and collaborators, a bit of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, a bit of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, as well as more than a smidgen of Romero and Carpenter, not to mention Ridley Scott’s Alien. If Abrams can’t quite pull off the material as well as his inspirations could have back in the day, I suppose that’s just part of the charm, much like the youngsters’ film is no Dawn of the Dead.

The opening scenes of Super 8 would give an unsuspecting viewer little to no indication as to the sci-fi creature-feature plot that is about to unfold. The first shot is a factory floor upon which a man is removing the numbers from a safety record sign, slowly resetting the number of days since the last accident. This is a quiet, mournful way to open a film this big, especially as the film transitions to the home of the town’s police deputy (Kyle Chandler) and his son (Joel Courtney) as they endure a funeral dinner. A wife, a mother, is lost in the accident at the factory. Normalcy has been broken. The son sits on a snowy swing, clutching his late mother’s locket. The father sits inside, tormented, wracked with sadness that turns to anger when the town drunk (Ron Eldard), a co-worker of his late wife’s, shows up unexpectedly.

With just two scenes, Abrams had me hooked. I cared about this father and son and wanted to see them become closer, to support each other in this time. They’re clinging not just to the memory of their lost loved one, but also to the memory of what she represents: the way things used to be.

The film moves forward to the summertime. The boy wants to go with his friends (including Ryan Lee and Zach Mills) to help the boisterous little director of the bunch (Riley Griffiths) finish his zombie movie. It’s a passion project and a distraction. He’s slowly but surely integrating back into a sense of normality. His father isn’t so sure about this project that, to him, seems a lot more useless than something like baseball camp. Of course, father and son have no way of knowing what’s about to crash down on their little town, how their own displaced sense of the routine is about to be writ large for everyone they know.

One night, the group of kids sneaks out to the edge of town to film a dramatic scene. They’ve convinced an alluring classmate (Elle Fanning) to play the token female role in their film. “It’s what makes a story!” the director claims. She doesn’t become just a plot point in Super 8, though. She’s a full-fledged character with great emotional pull. Once the kids start rehearsing, it’s clear that the girl’s much better equipped to act than their wooden buddy cast opposite her (Gabriel Basso). They, and we, are wowed. But these kids don’t get much of a chance to capture that sense of “wow” before a train derails not far from where they stand. It’s a sequence of sound, fury, and pyrotechnics that collide and cascade across the wide screen in a frightening display of effects work. “It’s like something out of a disaster movie,” one of the kids mutters in disbelief well after they’ve made it to safety.

Of course, the train was a top-secret air force train carrying suspiciously secretive cargo. Of course, the government personnel that swoop into town won’t inform the locals as to the extent of the danger. Of course, the town will start to experience strange disappearances, strange noises, strange power surges. Of course, this will all build to a climax of noise and action and through it all the characters will work through their personal struggles. But the film never plays out as if it were all so predetermined. Here’s a film that’s a Möbius strip of homage that still plays authentically as far as its characters are concerned. We may have seen movies of this kind before – so have these characters – but these characters have never lived this kind of intensified fantastical danger before.

These young actors have impressively natural screen presences; they’re relaxed and fun. It’s a group of exceedingly comfortable performances that blend nicely together. They’re authentic young people, not mere Hollywood ideas of what young people are, and it never feels like a false idea that these kids would be good friends. Fanning is incredible, so subtly charming, but the real standout is Joel Courtney. In his first film role he has the difficult task of being the emotional and physical center of the plot and he’s more than ready to handle the responsibility. He’s has an easy charm and an open expressiveness that’s immediately engaging. He’s a nice kid; I wanted him to succeed.

The adults tend to blend into the background of the story, but Kyle Chandler has such a deep, loving presence that it’s easy to care for the father-son relationship, to feel his grief and his confusion. How will he grow closer with his son? It’s easy as well to sympathize with his increasingly worried attempts to investigate and make sense of the strange events that are encroaching upon the town’s sense of safety. He’s a good man trying hard to do what’s right by his son and his town.

It’s a film in which, yes, there are all kinds of sci-fi elements that sneak around the margins and draw more and more of the film’s overt attention, but which is ultimately more interested in using its genre appeal to crystallize characterization. It’s a film that uses its crises to allow its characters to find their best selves. In that way it’s a nice coming-of-age story that allows its characters to love that which they must eventually leave behind. Their comfortable safety, their predictable lives, their childhoods, the way things used to be, all will eventually change. This is a film named after an old technology, set in the past, filtered through the movie-influenced childhood memories and influences of its creator, yet it is ironically about change, about learning from, and surviving, your experiences and emerging from them a better person.

In Super 8, the emotions are as choreographed and plotted out as the suspense. It alternates moments of down-to-earth characterization with moments of otherworldly chills tied together with a typically wonderful score from the versatile Michael Giacchino. This is a character-based blast of a popcorn entertainment. It’s expertly manipulative and throat-chokingly sentimental, just what a skilled piece of pop moviemaking should be. It never reaches the same levels of greatness as its influences, but it’s nice to see someone interested in reaching for that level who very nearly succeeds.

Note: One of Abrams's old super-8 collaborators is director Matt Reeves who, with Cloverfield and Let Me In, made even better examples of turning the same influences into art.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mad Mutants: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

With X-Men: First Class the franchise that started in 2000, peaked with 2003’s X2 and then went on to finish off a trilogy and limp through a prequel, has looped around to a second prequel that finally gets down to showing how a group of mutants formed the X-Men in the first place. This is all expositional dialogue from earlier movies tweaked, fleshed out, and made into one mostly coherent feature, but unlike 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, First Class is still capable of surprise. Rather than dutifully double-knotting loose ends that have already been tied, this movie takes a lot of pleasure in its comic-book style mythmaking.

It strikes me that the X-Men series now cumulatively is the best page-to-screen adaptation of the feel of a comic book series with its complicated, overlapping backstories, its ever evolving retconning, and its intricate, sometimes gap-filled, puzzle of exposition spread out across five installments. This new film starts off with several sequences that feel like separate issues of a comic that slowly merge into one storyline. We see a young Erik Lensherr in a World-War-II concentration camp bending a metal gate and then brought before a devious Nazi who, in a jarring edit that crosses the 180 degree line to good effect, is revealed to be a bit of a mad scientist interested in discovering and experimenting with mutated powers. We then see a young Charles Xavier using his telepathy to discover a shape-shifting orphan that has snuck into his cold family’s cavernous mansion, bring some hope to an alienated child.

From there, the movie flits between the two boys who quickly are shown to be young men. It’s the late 50’s. Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting down hidden Nazis while Xavier (James McAvoy) is working on his thesis at Oxford. They have different approaches towards using their mutations. Lensherr uses his for the power and violent revenge it allows him. Xavier, on the other hand, uses his seamlessly and secretively to give him an (unfair) advantage in social situations. One is all about making himself known; the other prefers to calmly blend in. What’s nice about these early-years portions of the film is the way it reveals their character traits through action. This helps propel the momentum ever forward without (or at least rarely) getting bogged down in the gooey nonsense of characters talking overtly about themselves in unconvincing ways.

Moving forward, into the 60’s, the film is jam-packed with plot and exposition. While good use of the period bric-a-brac allows for fashion, technology and music to flesh out the setting, the film has curiously little use for the civil rights struggle. You would think that would be the clearest allegory for mutants, much like Bryan Singer’s first two films in the series used mutants as a stand in for gay rights. This film has little time for allegory outside of a few dull stabs at social import that are mostly cringe-worthy, like the treatment of the film’s only African American. But in a movie this dense with plot, themes have a tendency to get ignored and when attention is finally, fleetingly, turned upon them, it feels awfully ham-fisted.

Aside from building (and rebuilding) characters and the universe, this is essentially a spy movie. The film busies itself with C.I.A. intrigue involving some well-intentioned agents (Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt) who want to recruit some mutants. To start with, they need a scientist who specializes in researching and theorizing about human mutations. They find one in Charles Xavier. They’re interested in using his knowledge to help in dealing with the devious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon!) who, reconnaissance tells them, just might have a group of mutant henchmen helping to heat up the Cold War. Why else would he hang around with three surly thugs (January Jones, Alex Gonzalez, and Jason Flemyng) who can provide mysterious, otherworldly enhancements to their intimidations?

This is a large cast, but all of the key elements fall into place in a pleasing manner. Fassbender and McAvoy, fine actors both, never condescend to their roles. With great seriousness, and more than a little bit of obvious pleasure, they command the screen with their fantastic presences. Fassbender, especially, has a kind of epic glower and a muscular suaveness that, in conjunction with his turtlenecks and leather jackets, feels just about as close to a resurrection of 60’s-era Steve McQueen or Sean Connery as we’ll ever get. As for the villain, Kevin Bacon hams it up – he’s clearly having a blast – but he manages to be an awfully serious threat at the same time.

The rest of the cast, while often less noteworthy, tend to be well equipped for what they’re asked to do. The “First Class” itself doesn’t even show up until not too long before the climactic action. But as the team assembles throughout the movie, despite the new characters receiving far less characterization that the main men, it’s fun more often than not to see both young versions of established characters like Mystique (now Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (now Nicholas Hoult) as well as new-to-the-screen characters like the howling Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and the energy-beam-shooting Havoc (Lucas Till). (Shortchanged is Zoe Kravitz as the flying and fireball-spitting Angel who is given the least heroics to do). True to the series pattern of creating eccentric ensembles with powers of varying believability, the group is a fine mix of sci-fi powers that end up working together in fun combinations in the final blast of action.

Despite the heavy amount of plot placed upon the film, it still manages to deliver the summer-movie goods at a rapid-fire pace. Director Matthew Vaughn (who directed last year’s superhero semi-satire Kick-Ass, a movie I enjoyed but slowly slightly soured on) concocts with his five co-writers a pleasing succession of smashing action beats that crash forward with a reassuring regularity. This is a big budget effects-heavy film that features some fine acting and some pleasing action. It’s also the rare franchise film that’s light on its feet despite the weight of accrued details.

It manages a brisk pace and can be quite funny at times, even finding ways to have some small fun with its occasional comic-book corniness (a telepath-blocking helmet is very cool, somewhat menacing, and fairly silly, all in the same instant). The vibrant, saturated colors and a smidgeon of self-conscious winking in the production design (including brief nods to Dr. Strangelove and Basic Instinct of all things) and small cameos do much to further the sense of both continuity and originality. It’s a prequel that’s most satisfying precisely because it finds a good balance between paying homage to all that’s come before and striking out on its own. There are enjoyable nods towards the franchise’s past while laying great groundwork for its potential future.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Radical Therapy: THE BEAVER

The Beaver is a film with good ideas, good performances, and good effort, but it doesn’t add up to a good movie. It’s nearly there, but not quite. I enjoyed each individual piece, to a point, but there’s a sense that with just a bit more prodding, with a push just a bit farther, the whole could be much more than good. It could even be great. Instead, we’re stuck nearly there. We can see greatness from here even if we can’t quite reach it.

In the film Mel Gibson plays Walter Black, a deeply depressed and alcoholic executive of a failing toy company. When we first see him, he’s presented as a man who once was a huge success but has had his professional reputation and personal relationships crippled by his mental illness. Because of the resonances with Gibson’s personal life that have left him an incredibly unpopular figure – his alcoholism, his abusiveness, his signs of mental illness – this dark comedy gets off too a painfully realistic start. Walter’s wife (Jodie Foster) and two sons, one a moody teenager (Anton Yelchin), the other a precocious grade-schooler (Riley Thomas Stewart), are starting to think he won’t get better. He spends all of his spare time, and most of his workday, sleeping when he’s not trudging along barely alert.

After a bungled suicide attempt, Walter finds himself talking through a beaver puppet that he pulled out of a dumpster. The beaver talks to him, encourages him, and gets him back to a state of confidence and alertness that his family and his colleagues find surprising in its speed and its apparent insanity. Walter walks through life a new man, almost literally. He wears the puppet on his hand at all times, speaking through it and for it in a thick brogue. It’s a complicated dance of identity and neurosis.

Gibson is playing two characters that are also two aspects of one character. It’s tricky territory, at once darkly funny and bleakly emotional, but Gibson pulls it off in a truly good performance. It’s not easy, but its power comes not just from its novelty or level of difficulty. This is some fine acting. Also quite good is the supporting cast that surrounds the central joke and dysfunction of the film. Foster (who also directs) is nicely rattled yet hopeful about it all and little Riley Thomas Stewart is awfully cute.

Meanwhile, Yelchin gets a fairly meaty subplot featuring a romance with a fellow high-schooler played by Jennifer Lawrence. So good in last year’s Winter’s Bone, Lawrence plays her character with a wounded fragility covered up by her cheerleader valedictorian status. She and Yelchin have an easy, unforced chemistry. Unfortunately, their story is neither fleshed out enough to be a compelling subplot nor satisfying enough to be merely a sweet footnote. They’re good enough to deserve a movie all their own.

The movie is swamped by the story of Walter Black. All else fades into the background, much like the presence of Gibson has distracted press from the actual movie itself. Walter sets the tone of it all, a dark, depressive sadness that leeches through its outer covering of quirk. Kyle Killen’s screenplay takes strange turns and is loaded up with obvious symbolism (sticky-notes listing similarities between two characters, a hole in the wall, a memory box, a paper-mache brain) and overly explanatory emotional reveals which have characters just flat out speaking their feelings in improbably ways. Foster’s solid direction holds things together, but the film ultimately doesn’t add up. There was so much to like about what was on screen that I almost couldn’t believe it when the credits rolled and I felt the whole thing come up empty.
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