Saturday, March 31, 2012

On Beauty: MIRROR MIRROR

It’s funny that the films through which general audiences would most likely know director Tarsem, his highest grossing pictures thus far, are hyper-violent, stylized films like 2000’s serial-killer mind-bender The Cell and last fall’s blood-splattered Greek myth Immortals. It’s funny not because those are bad films, but because when Tarsem gets into the realm of fairy-tale fantasy, his dazzling, idiosyncratic visual sense is at its most enveloping and engrossing. He’s a filmmaker with an overwhelmingly beautiful sense of color and composition and a striking attention to the details of eye-catching flourishes of set design and costuming (in some ways he’s a multicultural, postmodern heir to Vincente Minnelli). There’s a reason his greatest work at this point in his career is The Fall, a film at least partially about the power, the wonder, and the vividness of stories told to children.

His latest film – his fourth feature – is the completely family-friendly Mirror Mirror, a retelling of Snow White that takes a colorful and warmly winking approach to the material. This time around, the Evil Queen (Julia Roberts) isn’t just jealous of stepdaughter Snow White (Lily Collins) for being the fairest of them all. The not-too-sad widow wants the girl out of the way so that the Queen herself may marry a rich, square-jawed prince (Armie Hammer) in order to extend her rein and swell the kingdom’s coffers. This sets in motion a plot of miscommunications and misunderstood identity that eventually involves seven dwarves, though you might be surprised to find that they’re roving bandits and their names are Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), Half Pint (Mark Povinelli), Grub (Joe Gnoffo), Grimm (Danny Woodburn), Wolf (Sebastian Saraceno), Butcher (Martin Klebba), and Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark). After one of their robberies, one of them cheerfully remarks, “it’s better than working in a mine!”

Those aren’t the only differences between Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller’s screenplay and the story as traditionally told, or at least the even more familiar way Disney told it once upon a time ago. Here, Snow White is no passive damsel. Not at all. Snow has guts and gumption, plotting with the baker (Mare Winningham) and other loyal servants to overthrow her stepmother and avenger her late father (Sean Bean, who specializes in doomed characters) by taking back the throne. She even asks the prince for help after she sneaks into an introductory ball thrown in his honor. It’s just too bad the mean Queen overhears her and orders her manservant (Nathan Lane) to take Snow out in the forest and kill her. Last minute sympathy causes the servant to instead encourage Snow to flee into the woods. (That’s the most familiar plot point retained).

This is no movie in which Snow White’s just going to sit back, clean a house, whistle while she works, and fall into a coma awaiting Prince Charming. She’s thinking and acting for herself, standing up for herself, asserting her own personhood, and creating a plan of attack. Collins has a wonderfully placid paleness. She’s an easily believable personification of a character referred to as both “the fairest one of all” and “the most beautiful girl in the world.” She looks like a Disney princess. But she has a face with a fiery determination, a beauty that can sharpen with purposeful intensity. Her softness can become her strength. This damsel’s out to save the distressed, the townspeople ground down underneath the Evil Queen’s capricious rule, the poor subjugated so the decadent can ignore them and sit in the palace amidst delightfully disgusting decadence.

Here’s where Tarsem’s long-time collaborator the late, great Eiko Ishioka’s costumes really shine. The palace is a bewigged menagerie of curious aristocrats who wear elaborate costumes and strut about dripping privilege. When we first enter the throne room, for instance, a pompous Duke (Michael Lerner) plays chess with the Queen, a version of the game in which the pieces are servants wearing sailing-ship-shaped hats. Later all at the ball are dressed as animals in ways both beautiful – Snow’s a lovely swan – and hideous, like a man with what appears to be walrus jowls draped about his shoulders. (The Queen’s sniveling servant is, of course, wearing a hat with wiggling insectoid feelers).

This critique of upper-class vanity is most sharply felt in a scene in which the Queen prepares herself for the ball by having, among other great gross-out gags, bird droppings spread on her face, bees sting her lips, grubs placed in her ears, and tiny fish nibble at her cuticles. Roberts’s performance itself is a great portrayal of an aging narcissist. We can see the charmer she once was and still can be. But the desperation to her scheming to retain her beauty, her power, and the power she believes her beauty gives her, is a deranged driver of her evil plots. Of course, we come to realize she’s been totally evil all along, even in her younger days. Her Dorian Gray relationship with the woman in the mirror is only her latest excuse for bad behavior.

I love all these little tweaks to the Snow White fairy tale, but the fact of the matter is that the whole thing still could have been a jangle of clashing tones climbing up, up, and way over-the-top. That it doesn’t go there is a credit to Tarsem, whose vision for the film is a stirring, stunning, candy-colored one resplendent in eye-popping, mind-boggling design of good humor and a great eye. It’s a film I’d be content just to admire for the visuals, but because it has such genuine wit, fun characters, and lively performances to go along with its endlessly delightful look, it’s more than pretty surfaces. Like its Snow White, the film is beautiful inside and out and filled to the brim with invention. From a lovely animated prologue all the way through a Bollywood-inspired production number epilogue, Tarsem directs with a light touch and a sharp eye. I smiled the whole way through. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Titans Strike Back: WRATH OF THE TITANS

The 2010 remake of 1981’s campy Greek mythology monster movie Clash of the Titans has the dubious distinction of being a hit movie that’s terribly forgettable. I remember being downright bored not liking it and that Sam Worthington fought a giant scorpion and everyone loved how Liam Neeson growled “Release the Kraken!” in every trailer and commercial for the movie. Now here’s the sequel, this time around directed by Jonathan Liebesman, who last directed the alien-invasion war movie Battle: Los Angeles, which was one of the most chaotically uninvolving films I saw last year. So you can see why I approached Wrath of the Titans with a large degree of skepticism. It turns out to have mostly been unnecessary. The sequel may be no great movie – it’s still barely above middling in my book – but it’s a significant step forward and the kind of movie that works so well on its own you can go ahead and forget about seeing its predecessor if you’ve so far been lucky enough to avoid it.

Sam Worthington is back as Perseus, demigod son of Zeus. The opening narration tells us that after slaying the Kraken, he settled down as a fisherman in his seaside village where he lived a quiet, peaceful life raising his son on his own ever since whoever played his romantic interest in Clash decided she didn’t want to come back and do the sequel. Zeus (Liam Neeson) shows up at his son’s door to warn him that the gods are losing their powers and this means that they can’t keep all those monstrous Titans locked up anymore. Having delivered the message, Zeus meets up with Poseidon (Danny Huston) and together they head down to the Underworld, where they find that Hades (Ralph Fiennes) has joined forces with Ares (Edgar Ramirez) to kill off divine competition and free Kronos, who promises to restore the gods’ powers. Hades wounds Poseidon and captures Zeus and is well on his way to having his way.

Meanwhile, a giant, two-headed, fire-breathing, dog Titan attacks Perseus’s village. Once that’s dealt with, Poseidon shows up to deliver exposition, telling Perseus the nature of the quest that must be undertaken to restore peace. He even points out who must go with Perseus on the quest and where to find them. So the movie’s off and running in what seems like no time at all. The stakes are set – end of the world – and so is the goal: to unite Poseidon’s trident, Hades’s pitchfork, and Zeus’s lightning bolt and forge the ultimate weapon and only known Kronos killer. Perseus sets off on his flying horse Pegasus to find warrior-queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and his half-brother, demigod Agenor (Toby Kebbell) and gets them to help find the weapons, rescue Zeus, and save the world.

Unlike its predecessor, Wrath of the Titans makes an asset of its thinness. It just hurtles right along, all so straightforward. None of the actors have much to do and none of the mortal characters ever really pop with any personality to speak of aside from generic action quips and interjections. It’s the gods who are memorable here and they’re only used sparingly. Even so, I found myself reacting to the people on screen as actors not as characters, as in, it’s kind of nice to see Edgar Ramirez hamming it up from beneath ancient armor. What fills the void where memorable characters go, what the entire movie rests upon, is how much enjoyment can be found in the monsters. On that level, the movie delivers. Here there be monsters.

Among the highlights are the kind of expensive-looking, effects-driven setpieces you’d expect from a movie like this. The group runs through a forest with a Cyclops duo hot on their heels. They wander through a cavernous underground labyrinth where hallucinations are eerie, but far less deadly than the Minotaur. And, in the terrific climax, a colossal volcanic man drips immense ribbons of lava and fiery debris down upon a puny mortal army. Liebesman stages these and other action beats in a way that’s more or less understandable and shows off the effects work well, incorporating digital effects and 3D tricks in a likably competent way. It may not have the personality of the kind of stop-motion work Ray Harryhausen did, but it displays a similar respect for the sensation of seeing a vivid monster that could only be made real in the movies. The walking lava cloud is especially memorable. I love the way Perseus rides the flying horse through the layers of dripping danger, bobbing and weaving through the 3D depths in a rather strikingly designed series of shots.

It’s an agreeable diversion of an action spectacle that kind of dissolves on impact. But it’s efficient, delivering the big effects moments without letting the exposition bog down the proceedings or spending too much time providing characterizations to the cardboard. It’s a supremely simple-minded movie that just comes right out and says these are the Good Guys, these are the Bad Guys, and these are the Monsters. Then all of the above run around and fight and then the credits roll. The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome and provides an excuse to sit inside and eat some popcorn while avoiding a spring rain shower. (In a few months, it’ll be a fun, unchallenging rental for a lazy Sunday afternoon when you’d rather watch a movie than take a nap). I wouldn’t call this a good movie, or even a particularly involving movie, but I will admit to having a small amount of affection for it nonetheless. To all the journeymen directors and writers out there: If you have to make an unnecessary sequel to a terrible remake, you might as well make it as watchable as this one.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Too Soon: EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

I had Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on my list of films to see before I finalized my top ten list for 2011, but after the waves of critical negativity greeted its limited release, I took it off the list. The trailer, which for some reason seemed to play before at least a half-dozen films I saw during the fall, hadn’t been promising. But the pedigree (based on a Jonathan Safran Foer novel of some note, starring a bunch of Oscar winners and nominees that I quite like, directed by thrice-nominated Stephen Daldry) still had me interested. I had marked it down as a low priority and was all ready to move on when the Oscar nominations were announced. Surely the big surprise of that morning, the film made it on the list of nine nominees for Best Picture. Having seen the other eight titles, I once again felt the begrudging need to head out to the theater and see for myself.

I caught it in a mall multiplex near the end of its theatrical run. I’m glad I did. The film is not without it’s flaws. That’s putting it mildly. But I found it to be a compelling and even moving experience. Is it mechanical and manipulative in its use of a recent tragedy to give weight to its otherwise flimsy story? Certainly. But it barreled past my objections and worked on me. I can’t deny that it’s heavy handed, that it might just be too slick for its own good, that it meanders and sometimes bobbles its tone. But it’s also often powerfully acted and quietly absorbing in ways that surprised me given all the noxious critical reactions that surrounded its release.

The film is about a young boy (Thomas Horn) whose father (Tom Hanks) had a meeting in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In the opening scene he expresses disgust that his mother (Sandra Bullock) decided, since no body was recovered, to bury an empty coffin. His father’s death seems to resist closure. It is a wound that won’t heal, a scab at which he keeps picking away, hiding a makeshift shrine to 9/11 in the uppermost corner of his bedroom closet. For him, the idea of closure is at once intensely necessary and to be resisted. There can be no closure. The most wounding moment of the film comes in a scene that’s the least heavy-handed and the best acted in which the boy finds just the right words to hurt his mother, to lash out at the only person who can share his pain. In that scene, Horn is capably upset and Bullock's reaction is devastating. It’s a moment of emotional impact that I wouldn’t want to shrug off lightly.

Before 9/11, the father would create scavenger hunts to help the shy, awkward, but intelligent child learn how to go out into the world and find his way around obstacles. In his father’s death, the son finds the biggest scavenger hunt of all. He wants to find meaning in the tragedy, to find a way to make sense of his father’s death while honoring their relationship. He finds a key in a small envelope in the closet where his mother left his father’s belongings. Inside is a key. He thinks it will have all the answers. The poignancy comes from knowing that there are no answers to come, knowing that even if he does manage to find a lock that fits the key, he will eventually arrive at disappointment.

The envelope has one word written on it: “Black.” So, the boy looks up all of the people with the last name “Black” in the phone book and sets out to find them all, sneaking around his mother to do so. The concept of a little boy wandering by himself all over New York City is an oh-so-precious one, gaining what seems to be only strained precociousness with the addition of a neighbor, a mute, elderly Holocaust-survivor (Max Von Sydow) who takes it upon himself to look after the kid on some of these expeditions. And yet, the boy’s encounters with all manner of New Yorkers are just compelling enough to survive the sentimentality. Each person who decides to stop and hear his story contributes to this messy portrait of cross-cultural wounds in the wake of tragedy. The most affecting of these vignettes belongs to Jeffrey Wright and MVP Viola Davis, who once again proves that she can give depth and humanity to any role in which she’s cast.

But the quest of the key is ultimately, for me, beside the point. What really works here is the way the film circles around the tragedy, returning to it as the boy’s traumatic memories of the day continue to swirl in his head. Eventually, we get the full story of its impact on this family, of the way they first heard the news, the way they reacted to it as they began to realize they would never again see husband and father. Is it ultimately shamelessly manipulative? Undoubtedly. There’s a cringe-worthy shot in which Tom Hanks falls towards the camera, dropping out of the unseen World Trade Center and hurtling through a clear blue sky in slow motion. Yikes.

But there’s also a scene when Bullock spies the burning towers through a window at her workplace that’s an intensely sad and well staged moment. And there’s also a scene in which a phone cuts out at the same moment a TV in the background of the shot shows one of the towers collapsing. The sonic and visual trauma of the moment is effective and potentially overwhelming, much like the small catharsis that comes when Davis and Wright reappear in the narrative towards the conclusion. It’s a film in which people try to make their own sense out of tragic events, but that sense is inevitably smaller and more personal than the shared trauma.

This is a film that’s constantly teetering on the edge of disaster, not just the disaster of its subject, but a disaster of filmmaking as well. I found it to have some moments of great acting, especially from Davis and Bullock. I found it a film slightly more moving than cloying, slightly more emotional than egregious and, so, my reaction to the film ultimately tips slightly into the positive. Clearly, though, with material this volatile an approach so sturdy and oblivious, and a central character so potentially cloying, your mileage will most definitely vary. But reader, it held my attention and, by the end, I was surprised to find myself emotionally involved and moved. To report otherwise would be a disservice.

Quick Look: IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY

Some people seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against actors who decide they’d like to try their hand at directing. That’s too bad. You never know which actor will end up being the next Clint Eastwood or Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter, an all-time classic) or Gene Kelly (co-director of his Singin’ in the Rain), just to name a few. So when mega-celebrity Angelina Jolie decides she wants to write and direct a movie, I say, “why not?” When she decides to make a film about the Bosnian War of the early-90s and make that film a resolutely uncommercial one starring no marquee names, that’s a little over two hours long, with mostly Bosnian dialogue, even better. It’s just too bad her commercial daring couldn’t have made In the Land of Blood and Honey a better film. It’s a war movie laced with poisoned romance and rarely blinking brutality. Oh, sure, it’s quite well made on a technical level. The two leads – Zana Marjanovic and Goran Kostic – do good work and are capable of fascinating chemistry together. The grim, grey look of the film from cinematographer Dean Semler is polished and textured. But it’s all so Very Important, a seems-longer-than-it-is slog in which the good intentions and the weak melodrama drag each other down. It’s a punishing film with only the faintest flashes of interest, a message movie so heavy-handed and long-winded I felt beaten down by well-meaning bleakness. By the time pre-credit title cards spell out some facts of the tragedy that was the Bosnian War, I found myself angry. A compelling film could be made out of this material and Angelina Jolie clearly has the righteous indignation needed to power and shape a devastating character study that could actually make me feel through the film’s story and style the sadness and frustration of these facts. It just didn’t happen here, leaving it a big, empty, trudge through tough material. If she keeps trying, Jolie may yet become the next great actor-turned-director. Based on the evidence of this film, she’s most definitely not there yet.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Three years ago today, I posted my first film review on this blog. Where does the time go? I want to thank the growing number of readers. It's nice to be read. I'd also like to thank everyone who has ever had something nice to say about what I've been posting here. You know who you are. Here's to another great year! See you at the movies.

Talking it Out: A DANGEROUS METHOD


In A Dangerous Method, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) meets Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). It’s a film as much an academic character study as it is a dramatized clash between crucial differences in the field of psychology just as it was gaining some respect. This is a clinical and, pardon the pun, methodical film, based on a similar play by Christopher Hampton, about intellectual lives spilling over into the personal lives of professional men hiding their passions and their personal and academic foibles. You might not expect such a relationship drama from David Cronenberg, who started his career directing gooey body horror like Scanners and The Fly, but in recent years has turned to icy, brooding, bloody thrillers like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. But with A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg has made an outwardly composed film about messy psychological interiors, a film in which stillness and silence masks all manner of sins and contradictions, horror in its own interior way.

Expressive psychological horror is found in the character of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a mad woman who is carted into Jung’s sanitarium howling and contorting herself, her psychological problems expressing themselves with painful physical movements. The film begins with Jung trying out the “talking cure” on Spielrein, who Knightley provides with great gasping hesitations in her answers, speaking through teeth not clenched, but painfully twisted, her jaw jutting out fearfully far. It’s a raw performance. The path history takes this woman on is a fascinating one; the role she plays in the film, her relationships to the men in question as well as to psychology in general, become more fluid than at first appears possible.

Jung grows fascinated with this patient and feels close to a breakthrough. That’s when he decides to head off to Vienna to meet and consult with the elder statesman of his profession, Freud. In contrast to Knightley’s Spielrein, Fassbender’s Jung is slick and carefully composed. He speaks with a cold clip, even to his wife (Sarah Gadon), a tone that grows suspicious when confronted with a brilliant, but crazy colleague-turned-patient (Vincent Cassel). The first glimmer of passion we see from Jung is when he discusses his work with Freud.

The older man is clearly a kind of mentor figure, maybe even a father figure. Theirs is a helpful, collegial, inquisitive relationship, but one that grows subtly territorial and divergent as the years go by. It’s a relationship upon which all manner of Freudian implications can be read. (I’m sure that’d make Freud happy). Mortensen’s Freud first appears as a bearded delight, a warm and welcoming presence, inviting Jung to share a meal with his family and passing hours discussing their work. (In a rare light touch, the film takes silent notice of the way Freud is always chomping down on a cigar). But Freud nonetheless can grow harsh and judgmental adhering to the infallibility of his own work and to some extent worried about the path forward for the field to which he dedicated his life.

The differences in approach and philosophy between Jung and Freud are well documented, but the small, quiet genius of the film is the way it takes the potentially dry history of psychology and makes it into the stuff of stately period drama, then puts it in the hands of a talented director with a great cast and allows it to grow into something unsettling. At times it errs on the side of stuffy and slow, but this material, fully capable of tipping at any moment into the stuff of moldy docudrama, has instead the kind of tangled emotional undergrowths of quietly compelling cinema.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Battle Royale: THE HUNGER GAMES

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the first in a trilogy of popular sci-fi novels technically labeled “young adult” fiction, offers an irresistible genre hook that can be boiled down to easily sellable sensationalistic ad copy. 24 enter. Only 1 survives. But the plot goes deeper than the hook. The titular games are an annual event thrown by the wealthy ruling class of Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America with twelve districts. Each district is required to select at random one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 to be sent as tribute into a gladiatorial combat reality show. Winners return to their districts wealthy for life. Losers simply don’t return. It’s ritualistic sacrifice as entertainment, subjugation through mass opiates.

This is strong stuff and Collins makes it into gripping reading. It starts with satiric bite and shifts into a page-turner and a thrill ride without defanging its sharp social criticisms. The film follows the plot of the book closely, starting slowly in the gray, impoverished District 12. A gutsy hunter, teenager Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers to take the place of her younger sister (Willow Shields) in the upcoming Hunger Games and barely has time to ask her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to take care of her family before she’s whisked off to the Capital. Along with fellow District 12 tribute, a baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss finds herself in a strange new place, a metropolis of conspicuous consumption, rampant materialism, and grotesque amounts of leisure time. Their creepily optimistic Capital representative (Elizabeth Banks) guides them to their drunken, grizzled mentor (Woody Harrelson) and a kind stylist (Lenny Kravitz). These three are there to help these teens prepare for their upcoming fight to the death.

But first, a publicity tour. They’re paraded around the capital, which is some kind of stylistic mash-up of Metropolis, the Emerald City, and THX-1138.  The teens appear in parades for the approval of the quietly menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his gamemaster (Wes Bentley). Later, they’re interviewed on a talk show hosted by a sleazy ham (a perfectly cast Stanley Tucci). The sights and sounds of the Capital are terrifically imagined caricatures of decadence and careless oppression. It’s a city of people who look like Marie Antoinettes and Lady Gagas, colorful and baroque, while also as aloof as the filthy rich, blissfully ignorant of the true conditions in the outlying Districts of Panem. A telling moment comes during the talk show when a guest comments that the host smells “nicer.” “Well, I’ve been here longer,” the host replies with a wicked grin, underlining the easy-going condescension of the aristocracy. By the time Katniss and the other teens are sent into a technologically controlled wilderness to fight for the amusement of all Panem, it’s certainly clear that the odds are not in their favor.

The question going in to the new film adaptation of the book was if director and co-writer Gary Ross would be able to keep the same powerful mix of brisk, cliffhanger storytelling and wry, allegorical social satire. After all, his last film was 2003’s horseracing period piece Seabiscuit and, before that, 1998’s allegorical fantasy comedy Pleasantville. (Though, come to think of it, Pleasantville had it’s fair share of allegorical social satire). The answer to Ross’s suitability to the material is, thankfully, a qualified yes. This is a movie that’s a successful adaptation (Collins is one of the credited screenwriters) and a solid entertainment. As cinema, it is perhaps ultimately a bit of a disappointment, but I’ll get there.

Odds are that the audience will eat it up, though. This is without a doubt slick, button-pushing Hollywood entertainment that pumps up the emotional notes and hits the expected plot beats with a predictable regularity. Indeed, it’s a particularly faithful adaptation, in many ways a slavish abridgement that leaves the pacing sadly lumpy in spots. It can’t be easy to introduce so many characters and concepts and, consequentially, it feels at once rushed and bloated. But there’s quality control on screen here from a cast and crew that evidently shares a love of the source material. It’s a fine transcription of Collins’s imagination to the screen with some top-notch set designers, costumers, and art directors contributing to a convincing futuristic world. The cast is uniformly solid, though the leads, the usually compelling Lawrence and Hutchinson, are blanker than they should be. Katniss is a great character, a great heroine, but she fades into the spectacle more than she should. Ross doesn’t find a good way to represent the omnipresent interiority of the book that gives us more of an insight into her thoughts and actions. Still, Lawrence sells the big moments with a similar grit she gave to her breakout – and Oscar-nominated – role in Winter’s Bone.

Ross pumps up his filmmaking with shaky cinematography that drains some of the energy. When moments feel flat or preordained, jiggling the camera won’t work to spice them up. Unfortunately, the actual hand-to-hand combat in the Hunger Games themselves is filmed with an often blurry, haphazard, shaky cam as well. Perhaps this is a way to combat the limitations of the desired PG-13 rating, but it’s a lazy solution. The shaking image problem is compounded by the film’s tendency towards close-ups and tight medium shots that pervades the entire production. In many moments, I wondered if it was compensating for the relatively modest budget for this kind of spectacle by limiting what’s actual seen in the frames. The style is a detriment to those who would prefer to understand the in-the-moment action instead of simply waiting around for a still shot to clue us in to which blows landed, who got hurt, who’s alive and who’s dead. But since the 22 other fighters have been so sketchily introduced in choppy montage and rushed exposition, there’s not even much of a sense of who these other kids are. And that dilutes some of the horror. I’m not asking for more gore, only greater clarity.

Ross mostly nails the mood of Katniss’s main crisis, though. He understands that it’s a story about a young woman trapped in a terrible situation, forced into a nearly unwinnable scenario in which she’s struggling to retain autonomy and self-worth in a demoralizing society that wants her dead at worst, as a propagandistic pawn at best. Katniss is easy to root for; we want to see her succeed even if it’s not clear what success could possibly mean. With a central character, and central conflict, like this, The Hunger Games often makes for a compelling film, even if it’s ultimately a bit too cluttered and rushed – when its not languid, that is – for every little moment to land as well as they should.

It doesn’t consistently fall flat, but nor does it ever really take off. Ultimately Ross has made an adaptation that’s just slightly more than a pale imitation. It’s a solid effort all around and a promising start to a new franchise. (For my money, the third book is by far the best, still thrilling and accessible while even darker and more complex, with greater moral and allegorical force). I wish Ross could have taken more chances, made a gutsier film that made more of an impact with a streamlined pace and a visually coherent and comprehensible style. Greatness was within reach. Instead, it’s a film that drafts off whiffs of more exciting action and greater thematic depths.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Talks Have Broken Down: CARNAGE


One of the funniest comedies of 2011, or at least one of the most consistently amusing comedies both despite of and because of its sharply satirical ambitions, came in right under the wire – a late December limited release – from an unlikely source – polarizing director Roman Polanski. It’s Carnage, based on the Tony-winning play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza who, with Polanski, wrote the adaptation. They don’t make the common mistakes of turning plays into films, inflating the play to dilute its talky passages or expand its setting. Instead, Polanski effectively embraces the lengthy dialogue and the inherent claustrophobia of the play’s concept. 

It’s set over the course of a single afternoon in one Brooklyn apartment while two upper-middle-class couples discuss what is to be done about their children. Earlier in the week, while playing in the park, one eleven-year-old boy struck another with a stick, resulting in the victim needing some amount of dental work. But overall, at least from what we can glean from the second-hand sources with which we’re presented, this incident has bothered the parents more than the children. On this particular day, their parents come together in the spirit of reconciliation to figure out an apology, compensation, retribution, or something. It turns out that’s easier said than done.

It starts as barely-disguised sniping over plates of cobbler. Soon the four of them are bickering about child rearing which in turn spills over into arguments about anything and everything. The battle lines formed, buried and coded at the beginning, couple against couple, are soon elegantly redrawn with startling ease as the conversation continues to devolve. Now it’s men against women, then perhaps its liberals versus conservatives, then maybe it’s just the hopelessly selfish against the helplessly altruistic, and then back again. The point of it is, these grown people, these supposedly responsible adults, have, through their personalities and the plot’s slick contrivances, devolved into juvenile fits while trying to solve their juveniles’ brief burst of conflict.

Polanski films these tensely funny moments with a considered eye. It’s a purposefully theatrical film that often feels like a single 80-minute scene that just goes on and on, gaining extended awkwardness and cringe-worthy behavior along the way. As the couples, the talented, multiple-Oscar nominated and winning cast – it’s Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly versus Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz – chomps down into the material in a convincing and sustained way.

It’s a movie that does not offer a single performer downtime, a movie that seems to keep all four in the frame more often than not. It’s an impressive and compelling feat of screen acting. The four of them throw themselves into defiantly unlikable characters and make them completely watchable. They ultimately stalk around the enclosed space with a fervor that stops just shot of scenery chewing, spitting out more and more of their true feelings, losing the veneer of propriety and decorum. The tense insults and free-flowing emotions are punctuated only by Waltz’s constantly ringing cell phone bringing him updates from colleagues at a high-powered law firm.

I wished the final scene could have landed with a bit more heft, especially since Polanski’s previous film, 2010’s gripping, masterful thriller The Ghost Writer, is not only one of his best films in a very long time, it also has one of the most memorable finales in recent memory. Though Carnage definitely held my interest throughout, the final moment is a deflation that comes as a bit of a surprise following a short runtime that seems to be nothing but sustained escalation. It left me feeling less than fulfilled; the note the film ends on is little more than a shrug. After watching Polanski and Reza guide a talented cast, gearing up for a sharp, potentially deeply cutting, bite of satire, the conclusion just backs away, underlining the silliness and slightness of what came before. But it can’t quite undo the stellar work from an impressive group of artists. This is a film that’s short and sweet-and-sour. It might not ultimately make as great a point as it initially seems headed towards, but it’s still a well-acted, precisely directed, tersely amusing entertainment. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Held Back: 21 JUMP STREET

Being forced to repeat high school would be something of a waking nightmare for many of us. But isn’t it even the slightest bit tempting to get a second chance at what is, let’s face it, an important, but not that important, part of life? Surely everyone at least entertains the idea of a do-over for some piece of his or her past. To be forced back into the halls of high school would basically be a rubber-stamped approval for extended adolescence, or at least that’s what happens to the undercover cops in the movie remake of the late-80’s high concept cop show 21 Jump Street. They may be immature, but that’s kind of their job now, right?

The series ran on Fox from 1987 to 1991 and starred Johnny Depp as a fresh-faced cop assigned to go undercover as a high school student. The new big budget R-rated Hollywood comedy keeps the show’s high concept and plays it louder and faster, in a way that's more blatantly goofy, vulgar, and violent (sometimes shockingly so). And it works. It’s a slick, competent, surface-level entertainment, a smart adaptation that turns the basic plot hooks into a loving homage to buddy cop movies driven straight through a raunchy high school comedy. If the series was Miami Vice by way of Square Pegs, than the movie remake is Bad Boys in Superbad.

It starts in 2005, a time when a dweeb (Jonah Hill) and jock (Channing Tatum) barely interacted except for the times when the jock laughed at the dweeb for getting a brutal rejection from a pretty girl. They weren’t enemies; they just moved in vastly different circles. But now it’s present day and they’re both in the same police academy. They find they actually get along now. The dweeb helps the jock with the written work and the jock helps the dweeb with his physical trials and marksmanship. They’re so very excited to be cops that when their boring, low-stakes park patrol turns into a bungled drug bust, they’re dismayed to find themselves passed off into a secret program run by a mean stereotype of a commanding officer (Ice Cube) who informs them that they’re going undercover as high school students to track down a new drug ring.

To make matters worse, they’re posing as brothers. They’re a little too old. They’re a little too dissimilar. Yet pass themselves off as teen brothers they must. It’s a rich set-up for comedy and the script from Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill takes funny zigs and zags through a teen comedy terrain that is rife with youthful temptations for the rookie cops. They can’t help but fall back into their own petty high school mentalities but find themselves in an odd type of culture shock. As one who actually was in high school in 2005, I found myself gripped with a kind of mild terror. Could things be that different already? It hasn’t been that many years, has it? Time flies.

Suddenly Tatum’s cool jock style won’t fly and the nervous dorkiness of Hill is oddly appealing. You see, bullying, even of the mild variety, isn’t a surefire ticket to popularity that Tatum seems to think it is. Hill, on the other hand, marvels that the cool crowd is all about caring for the environment. Kids these days. So the two guys are startled to find themselves at the opposite ends of the teenage totem pole. The jock hangs with the chemistry nerds while the dweeb gets closer to the popular kids, especially a sweet girl (Brie Larson) who happens to be in a relationship with the main pusher (Dave Franco, James’s younger brother).

That the two undercover cops are opposites is a typical buddy cop trope. That they’re in a high school, forced to work out old differences and form new ways of social navigation, not to mention learn how to get along and how to be good at their fairly new jobs, creates a fun tension. Of course, it wouldn’t work at all without the winning chemistry between Tatum and Hill who have such a terrific brotherly rapport that they ping off each other with equal parts simpatico bluster and clashing competitiveness, an aggressive but loving friendship that develops in convincing ways. They’re both so game and eager to please that their timing develops the satisfying snap of an agreeable, comfortable comic partnership. I wish the supporting cast could have been used more memorably – Nick Offerman, Parks & Rec’s great Ron Swanson himself, appears in a single scene – but the main protagonists are wonderful anchors.

The plot is basic cop stuff complete with a couple of well-deployed twists, some mostly routine car chases and shootouts, and some perfect, absolutely perfect, cameos. The high school jokes are sometimes obvious – of course parents turn around and interrupt a raucous party – but they too are filled out with such specific and odd details amongst the students and faculty that it transcends its obviousness and finds new funny details in the corners of the hurtling pace of the rough detective through line. I especially liked the exasperated principal (Jake Johnson), the giggly chemistry teacher (Ellie Kemper), and the small gang of science geeks who have permission to go to the chemistry lab early in order to play Bakugan. I’m not sure what that is, but I know it’s some kind of game, which is better than Tatum, who angrily demands to know if it’s drugs.

This is hardly a perfect film – it’s lumpy and shambling in spots and fairly thin overall – but there’s an incredible energy to the way it’s put together. The script joins the two main threads in a self-aware way that draws out the implausibilities to often-great comedic effect. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, they bring some of the same inventiveness and willingness to variously reject and embrace cliché for laughs that they displayed in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. They know sometimes the funniest thing is to do just what’s expected only to pull back at the last second. Yes, the directors behind the most hilarious animated family film in recent memory have created a pretty good live-action R-rated romp of an action-comedy. 21 Jump Street may not be as polished or dense with jokes (and certainly not as family friendly) as Cloudy, but it’s still a stylish, fast-paced entertainment of its own   

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2011





1. The Tree of Life
2. War Horse
3. Certified Copy
4. Midnight in Paris
5. [tie] Attack the Block and The Interrupters
6. Take Shelter
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
8. Hanna
9. The Skin I Live In
10. Hugo

11 - 20 (in alphabetical order):
Bill Cunningham New York, Bridesmaids, Captain America, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Margaret, Melancholia, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Rango, Tomboy, The Trip

Honorable Mentions (also in alphabetical order):
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Contagion, Drive, Footloose, The Guard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hell and Back Again, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Muppets, Mysteries of Lisbon, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Paranormal Activity 3, The Princess of Montpensier, Super 8, Terri, Win Win

more bests of 2011

Other 2011 Bests

Best Cinematography
            Hanna
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Best Sound
            Contagion
            Drive
            Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
            Rango
            Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Best Special Effects
            Attack the Block
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
            Rise of the Planet of the Apes
            Transformers: Dark of the Moon
            The Tree of Life

Best Look (Set/Costume/Makeup/Art Direction)
            Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
            Immortals
The Skin I Live In
            Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
            The Tree of Life

Best Editing
            Attack the Block
            Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
            Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
            The Tree of Life
            War Horse

Best Score
            Captain America
            Hanna
            Hugo
            The Skin I Live In
            Super 8
            War Horse

Best Song
            “Fake I.D.” Footloose
“Life’s a Happy Song” The Muppets
            “Man or Muppet” The Muppets
            “Rango” Rango
            “Star Spangled Man” Captain America

Best Adapted Screenplay
            Captain America
Hugo
The Princess of Montpensier
            The Skin I Live In
            Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Original Screenplay
            Attack the Block
            Certified Copy
            Margaret
            Midnight in Paris
Take Shelter
           
Best Animated Film
            Happy Feet Two
Kung Fu Panda 2
Rango
Rio
Winnie the Pooh

Best Documentary
            Bill Cunningham New York
            Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
            Hell and Back Again
            The Interrupters

Best Supporting Actress
            Jeannie Berlin Margaret
            Jessica Chastain Take Shelter
            Charlotte Gainsbourg Melancholia
            Melissa McCarthy Bridesmaids
            Octavia Spencer The Help

Best Supporting Actor
            Tom Hollander Hanna
            Brad Pitt The Tree of Life
            John C. Reily Terri
            Corey Stoll Midnight in Paris
            Lambert Wilson The Princess of Montpensier

Best Actress
            Elena Anaya The Skin I Live In
            Juliette Binoche Certified Copy
            Viola Davis The Help
            Kirsten Dunst Melancholia
            Kristen Wiig Bridesmaids

Best Actor
            Gary Oldman Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
            Andy Serkis Rise of the Planet of the Apes
            Michael Shannon Take Shelter
            William Shimell Certified Copy
            Owen Wilson Midnight in Paris

Best Director
            Woody Allen Midnight in Paris
Joe Cornish Attack the Block
Abbas Kiarostami Certified Copy
Terrence Malick The Tree of Life
            Steven Spielberg War Horse

Grow Up: YOUNG ADULT

Honest to blog, Young Adult is the best thing Diablo Cody’s ever written, homeskillet. It’s sharp, funny, more than a little dark, and with nice nuance and shape. At its center is a fiercely committed performance from Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a young adult writer – well, more like ghost writer – up against a deadline. We’ll soon learn that her self-identified personas are in for some reality checks. We first see Mavis passed out on her bed. She begrudgingly gets up and stalks around her apartment, does her Wii Fit exercising, and then watches some Bravo reality shows while chugging a two-liter of Diet Coke. Then she sits down to peck out a few more lines of prose, but finds herself opening her email instead.

This opening sequence rings so true, feels drawn from the experience of a working writer and embellished (maybe) for her character. We know what kind of person Mavis is right away, and even if we didn’t, it’s made clear when she opens a mass email from her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) announcing the birth of their first child. She decides that her long-ago ex must be miserable. Knowing that she can technically work from anywhere, she packs a bag and leaves Minneapolis for her small hometown, determined to fix her life by getting back with her high school boyfriend.

Once back in town, she’s acutely reminded of all the reasons why she needed to escape in the first place. Her parents (Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins) still hang a picture of her ex-husband on the wall. Her old boyfriend is far from miserable. Some of her old high school acquaintances view the return of the “psycho prom queen bitch” (their words) with skepticism. And the only old classmate who will actually talk with her, the only one she can actually open up to, is the bullied, beaten, nerd (Patton Oswalt) who now lives a quiet, simple life, his only regular source of social interaction his sweet sister (Collette Wolfe).

The film walks a tricky line; Mavis is a monstrous social creature and yet oddly sympathetic as well. (It also may be a film covertly, or maybe even not so covertly, about an alcoholic, a manic-depressive, or both). She feels her life entering a dead end, and that’s painful, but the way she awkwardly grasps at the last remaining connections to the seemingly happy, popular, teenage girl she once was is sad, pathetic, and horrifying in a compelling, even occasionally endearing, way. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll realize that as she got older, she never really matured. The movie’s smart enough to know that such a shift may take time, more time than the narrative of the film allows, but it’s a film open ever so slightly to the possibility of change.

The director here is Jason Reitman. His adeptness with juggling ensembles can certainly be felt in the uniformly excellent cast who breathe life into the clever script. Reitman collaborated with Cody previously on Juno, a film of too-cute quirkiness and affectations that nonetheless gained some amount of very real charm and emotional power with a sure directorial hand, even if it’s perhaps one of too-slick shagginess, and an impressive cast. Young Adult, on the other hand, is a deconstruction of affectations and the characters, though less appealing, are no less relatable, which is why the film feels so much more savage in its satirical aims.

It’s the anti-Juno. In that film, the pregnant-teen protagonist’s outsider persona is embraced by those who love her; the cutting quips in her narration can be poisoned-dart punchlines. Here, Mavis is constantly either preparing to go out, placing the final touches on her persona, or dressing down in a casual carelessness when she knows she’ll be alone. She uses her outsider persona as a shield, behind which she fires harsh, judgmental potshots. She wants to make a connection with someone, anyone, but at the same time seems scared to try. Her whiplash shifts between harshly disparaging and cringingly needy are emotional time bombs.

The film itself strikes a nice ambivalent tone. Sometimes – okay, rarely – Mavis makes some kind of sense; we want to root for her. But her apparent obliviousness to her baseline social discomfort is so excruciating. By the time the film starts to slowly, painfully let the air leak out of her self-centered worldview, the fun starts to go with it. By the end, I was more interested the entertained, but Mavis Gary remained one of the most fascinating characters of 2011.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Barsoom: JOHN CARTER

John Carter begins three times. First, there’s a sequence that begins with a splash of expository narration before joining a conflict in media res with solar-powered flying vessels clashing in the skies above the planet Barsoom. Next, a young man (Daryl Sabara) arrives at the home of his recently departed uncle and, as a condition of the man’s will, is given a journal to read. Now, through his own words, we are properly introduced to that uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War veteran looking for gold out west while trying to avoid capture. And then, he’s mysteriously, accidentally transported to Barsoom. These three beginnings do more than place the narrative in framing devices like so many nesting dolls. It’s a narrative technique that emphasizes the protagonist’s status as a man out of time and space.

So too is the film’s source material. John Carter first appeared in print from the author Edgar Rice Burroughs, he of Tarzan fame, in the year 1912, exactly 100 years ago. Consequently, bits and pieces of the story can be traced through much of the previous century’s popular science fiction from Flash Gordon and Robinson Crusoe on Mars to Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, and Avatar. The trick of adapting John Carter after all these years is to make new what is old, to make fresh what has already been thoroughly chewed, to reconstitute a story, the DNA of which has permeated the genre in ways big and small these many years.

Up to the task is director Andrew Stanton, whose animation work for Pixar includes WALL-E, a favorite of mine and one of the very best sci-fi films of recent years. He makes his live action debut with John Carter and, much like his colleague Brad Bird proved with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there’s definitely something to be said for the animator’s eye applied to live action. Here is a film so wonderfully composed, so imbued with visual energy of a sturdy, meticulous kind that this becomes no mere studio programmer and rarely feels old-fashioned or stuffy in any way. No, this is a film that slides into its timeless qualities in a grand Hollywood style, with spectacle and pageantry so lush, so vivid and sweeping, that oftentimes it feels like what Cecil B. DeMille or David Lean would have done with space opera.

The film finds John Carter unexpectedly displaced to Barsoom, a dusty rust-tinged desert planet with regal red humanoids clashing for control of the planet while the tall, green, four-armed tribe of Tharks remains neutral and isolated in the barren wilderness. Barsoom, Carter soon learns, is what he knows as Mars. Its atmosphere and gravity give him extraordinary powers of strength and speed; he can cross vast distances in a single leap, kill a Thark with a single blow. This impresses the leader of the Tharks, the first beings of Barsoom to stumble upon this strange creature they first refer to as a “white worm” before finding ways to communicate with him, though they mistake “Virginia” as his species name rather than his homeland.

The Tharks clash over what to do with the man. One grumbling tribal leader (Thomas Haden Church) believes Carter should be put to the test against fearsome beasts in their punishing arena. But the Tharks’ leader (Willem Dafoe) is inquisitive and hopeful. He believes they’ve found a super-powered champion for their people. This is also the belief of the beautiful and tough princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), who crash-lands while fleeing a marriage to her nemesis (Dominic West) that was arranged by her father (Ciarán Hinds) as a peace treaty. For his part, Carter just wants to go home, but his curiosity and his desire to somehow help these strange people compels him to learn more about these warring tribes. After all, to return to Earth he will need all the help he can get learning about mysterious alien shape-shifters who were involved in getting him into this predicament and whose leader (Mark Strong), unbeknownst to Carter, is the true catalyst for the war on Barsoom.

This is a richly imagined world brought to life with strong filmmaking that, wonder of wonders, trusts an audience to understand aspects of plot without too much of a fuss. Powerful moments, like when an alien battle is crosscut with an Earth-bound burial flashback, sketch in backstory and juxtapose it with an exciting forward pace to draw a fuller picture of Carter’s mental state with incredible ease. The script by Stanton with Mark Andrews and the great novelist Michael Chabon has a wonderful flow, slipping through its narrative loops with a minimum of fuss and delivering big action setpieces without seeming to strain over much towards preordained plot points. The dialogue, so often a sticking point in these earnest throwback blockbusters, is nicely polished. The regal dialogue of the royal Barsoomian people comes off not as stiff fantasy gobbledygook, but vivid pseudo-historical regality whereas the Tharks have a nice tribal feeling and Carter himself has a nice rascally Southern drawl. The actors seem grateful for the chance to do more than pose for effects; they have a world to inhabit and characters to play.

Stanton exhibits a helpful curiosity in the workings of this fantasy world that match the bewildered Carter. The long middle section of the film in which we are introduced to various technologies, traditions, legends, villages, cities, vehicles, heroes, villains, and creatures (including Woola, a squishy, speedy monster-dog who I found more adorable than the dogs in The Artist, Beginners, and Hugo combined) is simply wonderful filmmaking. The effects are wonderful, but Stanton grounds them and makes them work as a cohesive whole. They’re neither confusing, nor overly explained. The costumes, all loose, flowing, ancient-alien chic, and the sets, from humble huts to towering castles, are just as lovingly designed and executed. It all just simply works together as a terrific example of world building while still telling a compelling, exciting, and, yes, even moving story.

It’s by nature a somewhat predictable story, seeing as it has arrived pre-recycled by its genre peers over so many decades, and the film is not without its rough patches, to be sure. But it’s a film told with such energy and a high entertainment factor that I found it especially irresistible. Like the best films of its genre, John Carter is a film that draws upon archetypes – here it’s a crypto-western that shakes off the “crypto” by more or less starting as one – and extrapolates, reinterpreting visceral, primeval stories into a form that expands the imagination. Here’s a satisfying film that, with a flourish of its sweeping Michael Giacchino score, opens up a new world before your very eyes and, whatever its influences, whatever its source material has influenced, manages to become something entirely its own.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Unless: THE LORAX


It’d be harder to believe that a slim, lovely little Dr. Seuss book was turned into 90 minutes of empty calories if Universal hadn’t already done it twice before. How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Cat in the Hat became garish live-action patience testers. Now it’s The Lorax’s turn, but it’s escaped that fate. The studio was smart to hand it over to Illumination, a recently established computer animation studio that gave them a surprise big, and well-earned, hit a couple of years ago with Despicable Me. The resulting Lorax movie bears more than a passing resemblance to prime Seussian illustrations, but the gem of ecological melancholy inherent in the small, powerful book is surrounded by a story about a boy who zips around on a scooter and has run-ins with a despotic mayor. If that doesn’t sound quite like the Lorax you remember, you’d be right.

Seuss’s book is a simple fable, a wistful, hesitantly hopeful story of a greedy businessman, the Once-ler, who deforested the land as far as the eye can see and drove the happy wildlife far, far away. He tells his tale to a curious boy, a tale of a failed intervention on behalf of the flora and fauna by the Lorax, a sad little creature whose environmental advocacy fell on deaf ears. Though the book ends with the boy receiving a single seed, from which the forests can begin to grow once again, Seuss offers us no such release. This is only hesitant hope. The fact of the matter is, ecological damage is terrifying in its totality. One seed may not be enough. What is necessary is people who care a whole awful lot.

I’ve found The Lorax to be one of Dr. Seuss’s most powerful works, a clear statement that is hardly moralizing. It’s vivid, beautiful illustrations highlight the loss that has happened to the environment these characters inhabit while the rendering of the Lorax himself is heartbreaking in the despondency the poor guy feels when he realizes that disaster has not been averted. The look is what directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda have gotten mostly right in their adaptation. It’s a bright colorful world of plants and creatures in flashback, but in the present it’s a barren place of smog and dust. What they’ve added is a city of plastic and technology, a walled-off place that has insulated itself from the harsh realities outside.

In this new environment, they have embellished the story by giving the boy a name, Ted (as in Theodor Geisel, perhaps?), a scooter, a wacky family, the voice of Zac Efron, and a dream. He wants to impress the girl down the street (Taylor Swift) by finding her one of those trees of legend, not one of the plastic, inflatable, electric plants that fill the town, but the living kind thought long extinct. His grandmother (Betty White) tells him to go see the Once-ler (Ed Helms), so Ted escapes town and rides into the beginning of Seuss’s story.

We then get a flashback with the Lorax (Danny DeVito) trying his hardest to stop the Once-ler (and his wacky family), to no avail. The Lorax is given more to do, but it dilutes his impact. Now he’s a jokester and a blustering prankster, not just a righteous, sad, spokesman. But, back to the boy, who has an extended climactic sequence in which he zips around town with the seed, but soon has the seed stolen by the evil mayor (Rob Riggle) who has made his fortune selling bottled air. This leads to a big chase scene that has lots of action and slapstick to go through.

And there’s where the embellishment of the adaptation steps wrong. It becomes a story about a boy who needs to plant the last seed, not a story about the Lorax. The film swallows him up in order to end on a note of happiness and hope. Hooray! The environment is saved! There’s no room for the overwhelming sadness that he represents here. No need to simply hint at hope, the film makes it concrete instead. And, though I found myself still moved by the final scene which, yes, brings the Lorax back in a small, touching way, there’s something to be said for the exciting lack of this resolution in the book that is lost in favor of a Hollywood ending. Even the power of the regretful villainy of the Once-ler is diluted by the addition of the goofy mayor antagonist, who has no such complexity.

Still, I’d rather not judge the movie solely on the ways it bungles Seuss’s tone, something the 1972 animated special got more or less right. I’d rather not just be comparing versions of the story against one another and, besides, I’d be a fool to expect a perfect transcription of the book. Taken on its own terms, this new Lorax actually works fairly well. It’s a highly competent family film that’s fast, cute, and often quite appealing. It’s also a musical. It was a big surprise to me when, in the first scene, the townspeople burst into song in a big, fun, introductory Broadway-style opening number. There are a few other numbers sprinkled throughout less successfully, but the finale is a rousing, satisfying showstopper. It’s very likable.

I didn’t dislike this movie, I just found myself frustrated by its competing impulses. On the one hand, it is a solid, standard, modern, musical, CG, 3D, Hollywood family film. On the other hand, it hints at the greatness of its source material, like with the first appearance of the Lorax, a nice, small moment in which he solemnly makes a fresh stump into a tribute to a fallen tree. So The Lorax is an agreeable movie, but its so close to great I couldn’t help but leave feeling I had just watched a bit of a missed opportunity.
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