Friday, November 30, 2012

Tomb of the Undead Soldier: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING


Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is stylish and weird in ambitious ways, to be sure, and certainly the only third-sequel-to-a-bad-90s-action-movie-and-the-first-following-a-direct-to-video-installment to not so subtly use Apocalypse Now, David Lynch, and Enter the Void as stylistic influences. There are those who will tell you that that’s reason enough to love or at least admire the film, especially when you consider the committed – and committed, if you catch my drift – unexpected thematic density and narrative rug pulling. I’m not one of them. But the film’s supporters are certainly right that, shot for a bargain, the film works over the cheapo franchise’s central conceit in a way that plays up the real terror at its center.

The Universal Soldier movies, largely terrible but for the modicum of pleasant style in the first and third, concern a secret government program that takes dead soldiers and reboots them into unstoppable cyborgs. Though mortals are both enablers of the situation and those caught in the middle, the meat of the movies are the cybernetically resurrected soldiers lining up along a hero and villain dichotomy with good soldier Jean-Claude Van Damme locked in a seemingly eternal struggle against bad soldier Dolph Lundgren. That it took this long for someone to treat robot zombie soldiers as terrifying is frankly something of a surprise. The clearly talented director John Hyams, who has been plugging away making direct-to-video movies for years now, and who co-wrote this with Doug Magnuson and Jon Greenhalgh, has made a film that appears to be exactly what it wants to be for good and ill.

Day of Reckoning opens with its best scene, a long, terrifying sequence in which a man (Scott Adkins) is awoken by his cute little daughter and, told that she heard a monster in the house, gets out of bed, walks down the hallway, turns on the kitchen light, and is confronted by masked intruders who proceed to beat him unconscious as they kill his family. Strong, shocking stuff, especially as the whole thing plays out with a subjective camera that puts the audience quite literally in the poor man’s eyes, unable to look away but for the flashes of darkness that cover the screen, frantic blinks that cement our uncomfortably close point of view. The biggest rug pull happens right before Adkins passes out, when his attacker stands over him and pulls off the mask, revealing a creepily bald Van Damme. Good is bad, up is down, safe is dangerous.

The movie that follows is a rather typical revenge picture in some ways, although it’s shot through with weird asides and gross fluorescent lighting that keeps the whole thing feeling unstable. Dialogue is occasionally inexplicable, deliberately confusing, or maddeningly opaque, with just about all of it delivered in what has to be purposely-flat affect. The plot complicates, smashing through typical car chases and shootouts while taking the time to pull over into atypical caesuras of mood and anxiety. I’ll put it this way: more time is spent in a hotel room not too dissimilar from Barton Fink’s than you’d expect. The threat of brutality lurks around every corner; the threat and the burden of a body spending an afterlife invaded and programmed hangs heavy over both the villains and our protagonist. This is a low-budget action movie that slithers with uncomfortable horror, playing as if it exists somewhere between hallucination and nightmare.

But while I admire the creativity on display, I found myself loathing the film’s unrepentant, unceasing cruelty, starting with that startling opening sequence that ends in the death of a small child and continuing through the film’s first bloody action sequence which involves men using prostitutes as human shields. A movie better be very good to make such scenes of purposeful ugliness worth sitting through and, though Hyams’s heavy-handed style reveals clear ambition, I was ultimately worn down as the movie drug to a close. By the end, I found it to be not at all worth the weighty nastiness it doles out in consistent doses.

Castaways: LIFE OF PI


There’s a moment early on in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in which a little boy stays up past his bedtime with a flashlight under the covers, regarding a comic book with seriousness in his eyes. The panel he finds most fascinating shows a boy opening his mouth and inside can be seen the whole universe. Lee pushes his camera in until this drawn universe fills the frame. The compelling image can be read as the film itself in microcosm: a finely rendered but rather ordinary sight that opens up to reveal untold unexpected wonders. It’s a story within a story and the set-up moves along just fine, but it’s all rather standard stuff. It doesn’t really take off until its quite literally adrift.

This visual marvel of a film starts simply enough with a young author (Rafe Spall) arriving at the home of Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), a man who reportedly has a miraculous story to tell, a story so good it’ll make one believe in God. Those are lofty (unattainable) ambitions and although the scenes with the writer fall flat (through no fault of the great Kahn), what follows in between interview and narration are charming flashback sequences in which a young boy (Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon) grows up in a small Indian town with his zookeeper father (Adil Hussain), mother (Tabu) and older brother (Mohd Abbas Khaleeli and Vibish Sivakumar). The little boy has a curiosity about animals and about spiritual matters. His father’s an atheist; his mother’s a Hindu. Soon enough the boy’s a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. His father tells him believing in everything is no better than believing in nothing. Later, talk turns to the zoo’s inhabitants. “Animals have souls,” the boy says. No, the stern zookeeper replies. All you see in an animal’s eyes is your own soul’s reflection.

So, the film has set up a rather heavy-handed, if good-natured, exploration of the intersection between spirituality and the animal kingdom. That it locates this thematic terrain in a quaint little period piece elaborately embellished through visual trickery only adds to the slight charms. By the time the boy is on the cusp of adulthood (now played by Suraj Sharma), circumstances are such that the family is preparing to move to the United States. The animals are sold to American sanctuaries, placed in cages and loaded aboard a freighter that will give the family free passage. Pi is saddened by such a move, but must go along. The journey is unremarkable, at least until one dark and stormy night the boat suffers debilitating mechanical problems.

In a sensationally staged sinking, terrifying and convincing, the boat crashes through unforgiving waves, takes on water, and ultimately disappears beneath the waves. Pi, the only survivor, is left all by himself in a lifeboat with nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see. Soon enough, he finds that he’s not alone. He’s stuck at sea with a full-grown tiger, a situation that only compounds the teenager’s problems. In shock and mourning, he must learn how to survive at sea, make a small amount of food and water sustain him until rescue, and, of course, not get mauled by an enormous feline. Through fully believable effects work, this wild beast growls and stalks about the confined space, becoming a character without quite becoming humanized. He remains frightening throughout.

Largely wordless, the film’s framing device is gone, leaving only stunning images and phenomenal filmmaking. The expressiveness of the camera, the precision of the special effects, and the terrific, physical performance from young Sharma add up to an extraordinary portrait of extreme loneliness and the expanse this character must survive in order to achieve a return to society. Ang Lee, a versatile visualist capable of wonderful invention in many a genre picture from drama The Ice Storm and Wuxia Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to superhero Hulk and tragic romance Brokeback Mountain, brings to what could be visual monotony a kind of breathless visual storytelling that creates indelible images. The reflective properties of the water creates striking vistas of multiplied sights and shifting color patterns; one nighttime shot doubles the starry sky so that the tiny lifeboat appears to float on a sea of stars. At one point, Pi nods off and dreams a hallucinogenic kaleidoscopic deep-sea vision that could almost be part of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s finale. A moment in which Pi is first confronted by the tiger and reacts by scrambling up over a canvas tarp and sliding around the bow of the boat has a scary/fun edge carefully regarded, the understated physicality of Sharma’s performance reminding me of nothing less than Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton. These images and more like them add up to a terrific cinematic experience.

By the end, though, the drifting boat – and drifting plot – comes to a resolution that I fear works slightly better as prose than on screen. Though I recall finding the conclusion of Yann Martel’s novel, upon which this film is based, of some interest, here it serves to underwhelm with it’s attempt to provide an alternate explanation in words for what we just saw so stirringly portrayed visually. I don’t think it adds up thematically in the ways the characters literally explain to us and it certainly didn’t affect any ideas I have about God, but that doesn’t much undercut the pure cinema at the film’s center. But for the majority of its runtime, Life of Pi is a transporting, enveloping feast of visual inventiveness and expressiveness, nestled inside a less satisfying film.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Jack Frost Rises: RISE OF THE GUARDIANS


When it comes to representations of magical legends of childhood, it’s basically Santa Claus or nothing. Rise of the Guardians starts off with a good idea by knocking the jolly old elf down a peg or two by putting him on equal footing with his fictional colleagues: the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy. The movie imagines them as a sort of holiday-themed supergroup a la The Avengers, using their powers of presents and wonder to protect the children of the world. Would that they could also use their powers to preserve a sense of wonder and fun in this film, but hey, one problem at a time.

At the film’s start, things appear to be relatively peaceful, but soon the apparently long gone Boogeyman appears. He’s gathered some kind of mumbo jumbo ability to convert Sandman’s dream sand into pure nightmare fuel, which leads to some finely animated menace with galloping yellow-eyed sand creatures and roiling seas of black grit. Santa, a burly, tattooed chap with a thick Russian accent activates the Aurora Borealis, which is apparently the secret distress signal for legendary beings. Once assembled, these guardian angels hear from their silent leader, the man on the moon. He signals that the Guardians need a new member to help them save the world’s dreams: Jack Frost.

Frost is a thin, hoodie-wearing scamp who flies around the world spreading cold and snow, touching surfaces with his magic staff that spreads frost in a way reminiscent of the ice-spreading fairies in Fantasia’s Tchaikovsky segment. Though he enjoys bringing slippery ice and snow days to the children of the world, he’s sad that none of them believe in him. When the Guardians show up and ask for his help, he’s reluctant. If you guess that he’ll end up travelling a rough approximation of the hero’s journey from begrudging help to a full-fledged Guardian throughout the course of the movie, you’d be right. This being a rather self-serious, if still determinedly bouncy, fantasy, he’s given the requisite troubled past, though here the twist is that he can’t remember it. (The reveal is one nice card the film has up its sleeve). The plot, adapted from the William Joyce books by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, becomes a typical clash of good and evil played out thinly, but with some energy.

Every aspect of the film is highly competent, brightly colored and full of hectic movement. The character design is more or less as creative as the voice work is functional. Frost (Chris Pine) is designed, oddly enough, as some kind of teen matinee idol, as if shipped from a Generic Protagonist factory. I liked the rougher conception of Santa (gruffly voiced by Alec Baldwin) as an amiable bruiser with an army of big, helpful yetis and diminutive, largely useless, elves at his command. The Easter bunny (Hugh Jackman) is simply a large rabbit, but I like the way his colorful eggs can sprout legs and hide themselves. The Sandman’s a silent, short, sandy fellow, whereas the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is a giant hummingbird lady who flits to and fro. The Boogeyman, however, makes for a rather bland villain, like someone sanded the distinctiveness off of Tom Hiddleston and gave him the voice of Jude Law. He’s easily dwarfed by his nightmare-magic.

Where the movie fails most of all is in its central thesis. The Guardians gain their powers from children believing in them and so they, in turn, protect children with their powers. That’s all fine, but the film plays out like forced frivolity, constantly extolling the benefits of childlike wonder and belief in magic while being itself depressingly literal about magic while assuming that an audience’s wonder will follow. Though first-time director Peter Ramsey has a nice control over the film’s visuals, no aspect of the film manages to rise above the level of competent. It felt to me like a long 97 minutes, filled with lots of talk of magic, but little magic felt. It clunks along from one sequence to the next, stopping at each of the characters’ lairs for a little bit of visual invention and spinning the oh-so-simple plot in place long enough to movie it ever-so-slightly forward. I’d bet kids won’t mind it so much, but what do I know? I’m not them. It’s a colorful distraction with a modicum of imagination, but all that I can testify to is that sitting through it once was more than enough for me, thanks.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

LINCOLN Belongs to the Ages


A big historical drama, all the more weighty and impressive for how simple and contained it feels, Lincoln is an epic of process and detail, unabashedly, unashamedly intellectual and literary, crafted by a master filmmaker in full command of his cinematic powers. Like War Horse, last year’s Spielbergian historical epic, Lincoln is beautifully old-fashioned and powerfully new. The life of Abraham Lincoln is hardly an inauspicious subject matter for a film. No less than John Ford and D.W. Griffith have used the iconic president – routinely considered one of, if not the, greatest American president – as material for impressive filmmaking and biographies in general often lends itself to static, overwhelmingly uneven, films. The genius of Spielberg’s Lincoln is the way he, and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner, narrow the focus, suggesting a large canvas with precise brushstrokes of great style.

The very first scene – after a harrowing, closely shot sequence of soldiers fighting with ugly, personal violence ankle deep in sickly grey mud – recognizes Lincoln as icon, as a stovepipe-hat-wearing, Emancipation-Proclamation-signing, quotable rhetorician of the public imagination. The camera watches adoring soldiers, some black and some white, who, as we’ll soon learn, have memorized the Gettysburg address. As the dialogue plays out, Lincoln remains off-screen for quite some time, slowly revealed sans hat, sitting casually, but leaning slightly forward, listening with evident interest. The Lincoln that the film proceeds to reveal scrapes away the fawning legacy and replaces him with an even more glorious portrait of a human man, smart, charming, troubled, wise, and crushed down under the burdens of the job and anxieties in the face of overwhelming uncertainty.

This portrayal’s greatness rests, first and foremost, with Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance so good that it could more accurately be called an inhabitation. Will I ever cease being surprised by Day-Lewis? Having already earned his reputation as one of the very best actors of his generation several times over, this feat of acting is no less completely convincing. From the first second he appears on screen, I forgot I was watching a performance, let alone a performance so remarkable and convincing that it’s as if a 150-year-old photograph has come to life. No, from his first to his final moments on screen he is fully and completely Abraham Lincoln. This is acting from the inside out with a presidential posture, lanky country lawyer mannerisms, and a hoarsely emphatic tenor that slips slightly higher for emphasis. We see that he’s an ordinary man who has bad dreams, who enjoys telling anecdotes as a way to charm his way sideways into larger points, who occasionally fights with his wife (Sally Field) and adores his surviving sons, one older and collegiate (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the other younger (Gulliver McGrath), scampering around the White House in a child-sized army uniform. Unlike characters in lesser biopics, this president is simply a man doing his job, unaware of his historical importance.

Instead of a sweeping skim across the surface of Lincoln’s life, or even just the Civil War, the film, based in part on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, concerns itself with early 1865, the final months of the war and the attempt to pass the 13th Constitutional amendment which would eventually end slavery once and for all. What unfolds is a legislative procedural, a thrilling and involving clash of personalities and powers that reveal the messy, halting uncertainty of doing the right thing. This is a film that successfully removes the certitude of hindsight, drawing its story in a way that’s immediate and powerful with a hugely talented ensemble of actors in terrific supporting parts. We meet members of the cabinet (David Strathairn and Bruce McGill) and Lincoln’s staff (Joseph Cross), passionate abolitionists (Tommy Lee Jones, David Costabile, and Hal Holbrook), vehement opposition (Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie), undecided votes (Michael Stuhlbarg and Walton Goggins) and those lobbying to win them over (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader). When Congress is in session, the halls of power reverberate with passionate arguments, sneering counterarguments, and witty rejoinders that become a raucous clamor of insults, outrage, and powerful rhetoric.

Tony Kushner’s lively script gives all of the actors wonderfully written, fully formed roles. In fact, this script as a whole is a marvel: sharply written, dense, easily complex and learned, funny, moving, and genuinely inspirational as well. After Angels in America and Munich, he continues his pattern of turning history into deeply felt, expansive works of art. With Lincoln he’s written one of the sharpest, smartest screenplays in recent memory, eagerly intelligent and memorably erudite in a way that respects the audience’s ability to keep up. He gives the film a structure of conversations, debates, and monologues that Spielberg films closely and attentively. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, painting the frames with light, generously holds the actors steady in the frame, slowly pushing in for dramatic emphasis or pulling back to reveal import of relationships within their surroundings.

This is a film of deceptively simple craft; beautifully complex compositions and subtle camera movements add up to an epic that’s gloriously restrained, spending much time indoors amidst impeccable period detail of mud and cold, flickering flames and creaky floors. Perhaps Spielberg’s least formally showy film is in fact a tremendous fragile beauty with sharp lovely imagery that bores into the core truth of any given scene. There’s nothing inherent in the material that’s stopping Spielberg from pulling back, sweeping his camera across a CG 19th-century Washington D.C. skyline or panning across a massive troop formation. But he keeps his camera close, emphasizing the humanity of these historical figures, no matter how heroic or loathsome. It’s a film about how epochal historic change is never easy, is made by flawed people trying to balance idealism and pragmatism to the best of their abilities.

The film’s an experiential nail-biter, as involving and transporting as period films come. Though we know how it all must end, the film’s final moments hit triumphant notes of uplift and sorrow. Lincoln’s assassination is handled beautifully, all the more powerful for what it omits and elides. It’s smartly staged, sure, but it’s also hugely emotional, one of the most powerful death scenes in recent memory despite its tact and relative lack of sentiment. A film that begins by humanizing an icon returns this man to his iconic status, a position all the richer for having lived through his final months. Now, once again, he belongs to the ages.



Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vampire Ever After: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2


You can learn a lot of things watching Breaking Dawn Part 2, the fifth and final Twilight movie. For starters, you can learn that decapitating a vampire looks much like decapitating a Lego person. You can also learn that vampires have so many different variants that when they group together they look like undead X-Men.  Most importantly, you can learn that some of the earlier Twilight movies weren’t so bad after all. On a meta level this is the story of a franchise that fell in love with itself, growing ever more thin in plot, ludicrous in tone, confused in implications, and yet approaching each new scene with a sense of suffocating reverence to the Stephenie Meyer-penned source material. What seemed to be cheesy or earnest in Catherine Hardwicke’s original installment or heavy-handed romanticism in Chris Weitz’s first sequel seems in retrospect to be appealingly situated, allowing genuine humor and creepiness to sneak in ever so slightly around the edges of what could easily have become ponderously bonkers. Because, oh boy, Breaking Dawn Part 2 is nothing if not ponderously bonkers.

Having resolved most of the tension involved in the Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) supernatural love triangle way back in the third film and then spending a fourth film limping its way through a dull wedding on its way to some surprising last-minute body horror, there’s nowhere else to go but to bring back the biggest delight of the franchise. They are the Volturi, a scheming group of vampiric overlords based in Venice. Only glimpsed here and there since their introduction in the second movie, they police the hush-hush world of bloodsuckers, maintaining this secret for thousands of years. It’s a fun pulpy concept deliciously devoured by former child-star Dakota Fanning and Michael Sheen with long black hair and glowing red eyes set so agreeably in his pasty pale skin. This time around he gets a fun moment where he lets out a startled laugh that goes up and down and trills around. Anyways, you may recall that in the last film Bella, while still human, was impregnated by Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), vampire. That child poses a threat to vampire kind for one reason or another so there’s the last gasp of conflict.

But the thing is, to describe the film to someone unfamiliar with the material would sound like utter hallucinatory madness. It’s a film with a family of vampires who stand around like they’re posing for a Lands’ End catalog, a creepy CGI psychic baby and her werewolf soulmate, and superpowered multicultural vampire covens that feel borrowed from somewhere else. And yet the film doesn’t even try to live up to its full nutty potential despite director Bill Condon’s attempts to inject some style on occasion. No, each and every moment has to quake with stultifying self-importance. Even the levity feels like forced fan service. Why else include a gratuitous – and coyly edited – scene in which the heartthrob werewolf (Taylor Lautner) suddenly disrobes before changing into his wolf form?

This final installment spends the bulk of its runtime introducing new characters and engineering strange one-last-scene curtain calls for just a couple of series regulars in between rote, sullen recitations of franchise lore. And yet no one found room for supporting character MVP Anna Kendrick, as one of the only human characters left, to stop by and bring a few laughs? By the time the Volturi float in and bring with them a scene of true energized conflict by way of a standoff that explodes into surprisingly satisfying violent, twisty digital combat before a fine rug-pull moment, it’s like finding a cheap prize at the bottom of a box of stale caramelized popcorn.

The longer the series goes on, the more it grows difficult to ignore the ways in which the story runs from its truly interesting aspects. Just look at how the half-vamp child is handled here as nothing more than cutesy, the total opposite of the concept’s inherent eeriness. I’m not asking for Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire level pathos here, simply acknowledgement of the idea’s complexity. The overarching idea of a hundred-year-old vampire falling in love with a teenage girl (and vice versa) has plenty of taboo frissons, a creepiness mingling with forbidden romance. To wish to become a vampire in order to be with him forever is a puppy love desire that dooms forever, limiting the poor girl’s future options, to say the least. The relationship has the potential to literally poison her. That’s why, upon reflection, the first film works fairly well. It marries vampire horror and adolescent angst quite nicely. That film’s final scene, in which Bella almost, but not quite, gets fanged at prom is a fun recognition of the situation’s implications, desire painfully denied for the benefit of all involved.

But now, in its final 115 minutes, the franchise engineers a resolution that works through magical thinking, resolving supernatural conundrums because True Love or something. After two mild entertainments and two films of increasingly slow, dumb storytelling, this finale’s best feat is activating a mild affection in me for the franchise’s earliest days, before it was for True Believers only. I don’t begrudge fans their enjoyment of the series; I just wish that, after a certain point, the filmmakers will still interested in letting me in instead of assuming that I already was.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bed Time: THE SESSIONS


For a movie based on a true story about a severely disabled man who decides it’s time he finally experienced sex, The Sessions feels awfully safe. That it doesn’t become smutty or distasteful is a credit to the warmth and humor that writer-director Ben Lewin brings out of the film’s lead performances. John Hawkes plays the disabled man, a poet who spends most of his time in an iron lung. During the few hours a day in which he’s not contained in this life-sustaining device, his assistant (Moon Bloodgood) wheels him about on a stretcher. Feeling he’s nearing his “expiration date,” and after consulting with a compassionate priest (William H. Macy), he decides that he’d like to understand what real intimacy is all about. He gets in contact with a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) who schedules six sessions of body awareness exercises. It’s an edgy concept softened and diluted by sleepy, soft-focus sentimentality until it’s about nothing more than better living and better relationships through better physical awareness.

But rather than growing sanctimonious, the film remains low-key and character-driven, playing out in simple scenes, developing the relationship between the man and his therapist. Rare is the sequence that holds more than two characters at a time. Thin and short, the film proceeds with a dash of charm and gets by on an unexpected matter-of-fact, all-smiles approach that preemptively deflates the base, exploitative approach that one can imagine a lesser production might have, even inadvertently, fallen into. Lewin builds a story that’s out to do nothing more than assert the basic humanity of all persons no matter what their conditions or occupations and to do so with some fine acting and surprising lightness.

That’s nice, I suppose, and the total visual indifference – flat staging and inexpressive framing – doesn’t interfere with those aims all that much. Lewin’s seemingly apathetic direction and plain visual sense is hardly enough to kill the film outright, no matter how treacly and plodding the whole thing becomes at times. Periodic scenes of Hawkes bonding with Macy’s remarkably patient and accommodating priest underline the breezy seriousness of the whole thing. It’s a glossy, decently put together film that, if it weren’t for its R-rated giggliness, could’ve passed for a mildly daring TV Movie of the Week in the 90s.

It’s all about the acting here. Hawkes, working wonders with an effortful pinched, nasally voice, has a limited physical range in the role, placed flat on his back, forcing him to wrench his neck around to speak to other characters in the scene. He’s convincing. You’d never know he wasn’t bedridden if he hadn’t been a stellar character actor for a couple decades now. He plays the role as a full, convincing person with a rich interior life, where there had to have been the unfortunate temptation of using restricted movements and vocal acrobatics as an Oscar-gambit gimmick. He projects the countenance and tenor of a man for whom it takes a great deal of work to speak, let alone write, and yet in his poetry and in his narration, he has a grace of expression that’s rather touching.

Hunt has a trickier role. The film simply asks more of her, a nakedness of expression and presentation that Hawkes isn’t called to provide in anything close to the same quantity. She carries with her the entire balance of the film’s matter-of-fact method. In her acting duets of therapeutic intimacy and slowly expanding openness with Hawkes, he projects nervous anxiety. She’s all earthy, natural comfort, ready and willing to do what it takes to help this man feel some release, even for one brief moment. That the two develop a friendship that deeply affects both of them is hardly in doubt. That there will be medical challenges and a dénouement of weepy uplift is another given. But somehow Hunt and Hawkes, in the movie’s best moments, distract from those inevitabilities.

It’s a simple movie about how we should be kind and understanding to one another that’s carried only by the hard work of the cast. The totality of its worth rests with them. This is a movie that’s content to be a thin true story softly told, visually shoddy and narratively predictable. As such, this is a film that has little to recommend it beyond the chance to see two good actors do very good work in a mediocre movie.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

License to Thrill: SKYFALL


Does the world still need James Bond? Born out of Cold War tensions, Ian Fleming’s character has been spying, fighting, and romancing his way across the screen for fifty years now. The world has changed. In a post-9/11 world – not to mention a post-Jason Bourne cinema – the lines between ally and enemy are no longer as clear as they once seemed to be. No longer is the main threat to a country the outsized villain with a diabolical plot involving superweapons of mass destruction. Now, more than ever, we are aware of the threat that comes from anywhere, can be a single person or a single cyberattack, one single unpredictable moment of terror. Is there room these days for a suave, smart, force of nature secret agent out in the field?

This is the very question that forms the core of the newest Bond film, Skyfall, which is an elegant argument for its own existence, a crisp, modern espionage film with a fluid forward momentum. Director Sam Mendes, an Academy Award winner best know for projects dripping with prestige like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, working from a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, hits the ground running with a great action set-piece involving a car chase that becomes a motorcycle chase that becomes a tussle on top of a train. By the time Daniel Craig, in his third Bond film, leaps through a freshly ripped hole in the back of a train car and, without missing a beat, unflappably fixes his cufflinks, it’s clear that this is without a doubt the classic character expertly portrayed.

But Craig’s Bond is troubled. The curtain raiser ends with a botched mission, the import felt through the opening credits set to a great Bond theme belted out by Adele. When we rejoin the action three months have passed. We learn that 007 failed to retrieve a stolen hard drive containing the identities of every agent embedded in terrorist organizations around the globe. His boss, M (Judi Dench, never better in this role), is confronted by a higher-up (Ralph Fiennes) who wonders if it’s time to retire the double-O program. Losing the drive is a massive security breach even before the person who stole it blows up M’s office and sends her threatening messages. Is it possible for Bond to stop such a new threat, one for which they have no face or name and certainly no sense of a grand villainous scheme at play? And thus the movie’s stakes are tied to the very future of the program (and, by extension, the franchise). It’s a battle between tradition and the future, between old mistakes and hope for a better world of tomorrow.

When Daniel Craig took over the role of Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, he found himself in a skillful reimagining of the franchise, an attempt to scale back the overblown theatrics of gadgets and gals and tell a simpler, more direct and emotional action movie with blunter, more immediate geopolitical stakes. Gone were the trappings of Bond movies before. Gone were the gadgets and Q, their maker. Gone too was the flirtatious secretary Moneypenny and the broad, splashy setpieces. This was a successful attempt to rein in the franchise’s self-parodic tendencies and redefine the iconography of 007 for the 21st century. Sadly his ’08 follow up, Quantum of Solace, went dour and choppy for the worse.

With Skyfall, the franchise has fully activated the promise of its latest reboot, finding a happy middle ground between respecting what’s come before and discovering room to grow, between nods towards depth and a genuine sense of fun. Mendes, while coaxing some really terrific acting from the entire cast from Craig and Dench on down, brings a seamless flow to picture, running smoothly between modern demands and playful winks towards the franchise’s past. Bringing new faces to familiar types of roles, there’s a young Q (a charming Ben Whishaw), as well as lovely women, one helpful (Naomi Harris) and one potentially dangerous (Bérénice Marlohe). Rather than becoming comedic relief or set dressing, the characters are given meaningful places within the plot. When we finally meet the main villain (hammily, in a good way, played by Javier Bardem), he’s a speechifying revengeful egomaniac with a surprising hairstyle and a chewy accent, but he also has a worryingly small operation built around superior tech-savvy knowhow that he wields to devastating psychopathic ends. Instead of playing the Bond-movie tropes in the same old way, this movie takes them apart only to build them back up again in a more modern and generous way.

The involving story moves inevitably along a one-thing-after-another course with cascading sequences of spycraft and action that progress inevitably to a climactic battle. Though it hits many of the beats you’d expect from an action film, it’s the high level of craftsmanship from all involved that make this a compulsively watchable, tense and amusing experience. This is a gorgeous globetrotting thriller, strikingly shot by Roger Deakins, the greatest living cinematographer. He captures the sweeping scenery from Shanghai to Scotland with a detailed beauty, just as he films the sensational effects and small-scale brawls with a deft touch and good eye for stunning compositions with unexpectedly rich sources of illumination. I especially liked the one-on-one fistfight in a skyscraper that plays out mostly in one long shot that finds the combatants silhouetted against neon light pouring in through the window. There’s great fun to be found in the way the beautifully shot beatings mirror the conflict between elegance and destruction that runs throughout this franchise.

So does the world still need James Bond? I don’t know about need, but there's something comforting about seeing this character and his world, at once a constant cultural presence and constantly maleable, once more. By the end of this film, Bond's world has been rebuilt, recognizable in unexpected and wholly satisfying ways, back up from its bare bones Casino Royale restart. On the basis of this strong outing I’d say that I’m awfully glad he’s still around and that talented filmmakers have been given the freedom to do right by him. The result is an entertaining film that’s at or near the high-water marks of the series. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fatherly Fear: CITADEL


In the opening scene of Ciaran Foy’s Citadel, we meet a young couple who have happiness that is destined to be short-lived. Their rundown apartment building’s malfunctioning elevator and its convenient window creates a situation in which the young man (Aneurin Barnard) looks on helplessly as his pregnant wife (Amy Shiels) is attacked by a group of hooded teenagers. This opens the film with a scary, well executed, if a bit predictably staged, piece of horror filmmaking. The movie skips ahead nine months to find the poor man struggling to raise his baby alone, while his wife remains comatose in the hospital. Foy’s shaky handheld camera captures a paranoid subjectivity as we learn that the man has developed a severe case of agoraphobia. He is barely able to ride the bus to his group therapy where he seems to be making little progress. He’s terrified, nearly paralyzed with fear that something will happen to him, or worse, to his child.

As a potent metaphor for first-time fatherhood, the film generates a considerable amount of clammy suspense, an inky dark mood of uncomfortable constant tension. In his small, dark new home, the man has a constant wild-eyed stare, his hair mussed and stuck on his forehead with half-dried sweat. As he mournfully tries to get on with his life, he feels haunted by his wife’s attackers. One night, he thinks he sees a hooded figure through the beveled glass of his door. Later, he comes home to find the deadbolt on his entrance rattles uselessly. One creepy shot watches the man in the kitchen preparing a bottle for his hungry infant when a sudden movement across the doorway behind him is caught reflected in the teakettle, unseen by the protagonist but unmistakable to the audience.

Events conspire to push this man’s fear even further. The film grows more rattled and tense. More characters are introduced. A kindhearted nurse (Wunmi Mosaku) tries to help the man. A possibly insane priest (James Cosmo) strangely seems to know the answer to this particular trauma and attempts to compel the man to help stop this particular haunting and prevent further violence. An eerie blind boy (Jake Wilson) serenely walks through the picture as well, unafraid of the dangers to come. All the while, an ominous score noodles away throughout the scenes, laying a heavy aural pall over it all, milking the simmering fright for all it’s worth, which isn’t much, really. This film’s fine horror atmosphere is soon revealed to be no more than that.

By the end, the film has grown rather empty, dipping too far into conventional horror scares, losing its somewhat subtle psychology as it descends into routine shambling villains, children in peril, slimy mise-en-scène, and rote symbolism of dark and light that carries unfortunate (and likely unintended) mixed messages about class, especially with the hoodie-wearing kids dehumanized in uncomfortable ways. Throughout, Barnard’s hardworking performance provides a spooked intensity that carries the film, but the construction ultimately lets him – and the whole production – down. Foy has created a tense, intriguing set-up that serves him well for a good portion of the film’s 84-minute runtime, but it resolves in a dispiritingly routine way. Sadly, the less abstract the film’s source of fear becomes, the easier it is to dismiss, the film growing thinner as it goes along. This is an intriguing, ultimately unsatisfying, feature that shows its writer-director to be one of promise, even if said promise isn’t fully activated here.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Bumpy FLIGHT


Howard Hawks once said a good movie has three good scenes and no bad scenes. Flight, director Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action movie in twelve years, tweaks the formula by giving us three great scenes and a few bad ones. Two of the great scenes are right up front. The opening puts us in a hotel room with airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and the flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) he spent the night with. The camera’s nonchalant capture of skin, sheets, and bottles of booze reveals a director who, after making (mostly great) animated movies over the past decade, is reveling in his return to live action, to flesh and blood and earthly pleasures. The pilot, slow to wake up, does a line of cocaine, snorting it up as classic rock on the soundtrack blares to life and the camera flings back with his newly energized head. He’s ready to go, and so is the movie.

Right away, the script by John Gatins puts the audience in the unusual position of not knowing how to take the main character. There’s an instinctive cringing dread to seeing a pilot drunkenly inhale coke before a flight, but the smart casting balances this out. Denzel Washington, confident and cool, has intense audience affection. (He’s one of the few true Movie Stars left). The audience wants to root for Denzel the wise, Denzel the tough-but-fair, but the movie gives us a different kind of Washington role. Here his bravado is empty. He’s good at his job, very good as we’ll soon find out, but his addictions have gotten the best of him. His overconfident suaveness covers up all manner of lies and deceptions that are barely hidden from sight. In a small gesture Zemeckis catches in the corner of a frame, Whitaker slips, only just catching his footing, while climbing aboard the plane.

In the movie’s next great scene, the ordinary flight goes horribly wrong, but not because of its impaired pilot. Suffering devastating mechanical failure, the plane enters a terrifying nosedive. The shot that looks through the cockpit window as the clouds part to reveal the rapidly approaching ground is a gripping moment of stomach-flipping suspense. With convincing special effects and precise blocking, the plane crashes. With miraculous quick thinking, Captain Whitaker brings the plane down relatively safely, through a scary, effective extended scene in which the plane, falling out of the sky, ends up flying upside down before slicing through a church steeple and slamming into a field. Somehow, out of 102 people aboard the flight, 96 survive.

The film follows the aftermath of this accident. The media calls the pilot a hero. The pilots’ union rep (Bruce Greenwood) tells Whitaker to keep a low profile, to not speak to the press. The union calls in a lawyer (Don Cheadle) to handle the criminal side of the accident investigation. It’s clear that the plane suffered mechanical difficulties. It’s also clear that the pilot was inebriated. He is hero; he is a criminal. The film creates a convincing scenario from which there can be no easy answers, from which there’s no easy way out. It’s perhaps somewhat inevitable that, in pursuit of some sort of resolution, the film can’t bring this conflict to a convincing resolution. That it tries is its biggest miscalculation.

Until that point, however, the film is an intermittently gripping character study in the body of a procedural. As the accident investigation moves forward, step by methodical step, Whitaker struggles with his addictions to drugs and alcohol. He calls his dealer (John Goodman), but refuses to take more drugs. He befriends an addict (Kelly Reilly) and encourages her to get help, all the while refusing to admit he has problems of his own. In a quick-cut montage, he dumps all his booze down the drain, but days later buys a case and can’t even get out of the parking lot before he takes a swig.

He’s a man given a big wake-up call, a near-death experience that might result in his going to prison, and yet he still refuses to let himself admit that he has a problem. One night, confronted about his drinking, he bellows that he “chooses to drink.” Advised by his lawyer to stop drinking, Whitaker calmly says that he will. He thinks he can stop cold turkey by simply choosing to do so, through his sheer force of will. The last great scene in the film involves the soft hum of a refrigerator generating suspense in the middle of the night. It calls to Whitaker. Will he open it? Will he break his sobriety once more?

Gatins script could have been directed as nothing more than a standard Hollywood substance abuse parable and, though it occasionally is just that, especially in the painfully obvious music cues, it’s often energized by Zemeckis’s confident, composed studio dramaturgy and Washington’s seemingly effortlessly complicated performance. The only problem with creating such a high-flying drama is the high probability that it’ll be brought in for a crash landing. In a funny structural echo of the doomed flight at the center of it all, the film starts strong, soars high, but then loses altitude before crash landing into the end credits. By choosing to focus on a situation that’s intriguingly irreconcilable, I can’t exactly blame the filmmakers for finding a way to reconcile the film’s various strands that seems too easy and even has one particular scene that’s so bad it appears to be counter to their thematic intent. I’m just disappointed that they couldn’t find the film a landing to match the sensational takeoff. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Arcade Fire: WRECK-IT RALPH


Video game aesthetics have borrowed from Hollywood spectacles, which in turn borrowed right back, but Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, a bright, amusing animated comedy set in a world of game characters in an arcade, is interested in game play on a tad more than a superficial level. In this movie, the games are flexible, imaginatively malleable, and capable of shifting down to their very code. Drawing upon a Toy Story template, the characters in the games of this arcade come to life when the gamers aren’t looking. This allows for a movie of colorful creativity, creating impressive digital backdrops as characters end up zapping themselves out the back of their games, down through the power cords to a large power strip they call Game Central Station, a meeting place from which they can end up in any game they choose.

But just because the characters can jump from game to game doesn’t mean they should. Sure, some of the characters will party it up after closing time, but no one actually interferes with another’s game play. They see their fates as predetermined. At the movie’s start, we meet Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), a massive, lumbering villain in a Donkey Kong-like game. He’s spent thirty years smashing up an 8-bit high-rise only to watch day after day, level after level, the game’s namesake, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), save the day. Felix gets all the medals, but Ralph’s left in the mud. That’s the routine and Ralph’s tired of it all. For no other reason than because he’s a bad guy, one of the only characters in any game he can really talk to is a ghost from Pac Man. For once, Ralph wants to win a medal and be loved, so he throws off society’s shackles and wanders into a couple of other games in his attempt to leave villainy behind.

He bumbles into Hero’s Duty, a first-person-shooter led by a sci-fi drill sergeant (Jane Lynch). He suffers an intense culture shock that’s hardly alleviated when he rockets over to the candy-coated kart racer Sugar Rush (think Mario Kart) and meets a spastic little girl (Sarah Silverman, in an exaggerated cutesy voice) and the goofily tyrannical King Candy (Alan Tudyk, unrecognizable with a loopy Ed Wynn voice). While Ralph is off gathering an island of misfit code, Felix sets off to find him and prevent their game from getting unplugged. The movie has a great deal of fun putting these two guys – one constantly grumpy, the other all gee-whiz innocence – into unfamiliar surroundings. When Felix first lays eyes on the shiny, dark-green-glowing scenery of Hero’s Duty he gapes and whispers “High definition” in awe. When Ralph lumbers into Sugar Rush he, through an elaborate pratfall, ends up stuck in a giant cupcake and beaten by a pair of anthropomorphized donuts (who are, of course, cops).

The plot’s rather uncomplicated, though it takes some fun twists and turns, and the premise isn’t pushed as far as I’d hoped, but that’s not so bad. As the movie settles into a nice, comfortable groove, it gathers a fine message about following your heart, being kind to others, taking pride in your job, and embracing your programming in order to transcend your programming.  That’s all well and good, but where the movie really works is in its breakneck speed and in its sharp, clever visuals, an explosion of homage and imagination, colorfully rendered. Director Rich Moore’s background with The Simpsons and Futurama might have something to do with the fine voice work and the clever animation including mile-a-minute gags and some unexpected reversals within dialogue, but the best part of the movie is the distinct environments of the three games in play. Fix-It Felix Jr. is a world of black out of which a building emerges, simple and blocky. Hero’s Duty is dark as well, but detailed and sleek. Sugar Rush is a place of overwhelming color and hyperactive silliness that lives up to its name and then some. In what has to be the work of a crew of animators who have much nostalgia for old video games, there are a great deal of cameos peppering the background between games – from Bowser to Pong and from Sonic to Q*bert – as well as strategic cutaways to renderings of the games as games.

In the end Wreck-It Ralph is an entertaining evocation of the way games work, where characters use cheat codes to gain access to secret parts of the game and where our protagonist moves through various worlds, defeating various obstacles, to try to win, that is, get a medal and get back before the arcade opens and his game’s unplugged for appearing to be out of order. (What else could you do with a game that’s missing its bad guy?) When, in the final moments, the baddest bad guy catches Ralph by surprise, the goofy slimeball gravely welcomes him to the “boss level.” With such a heavy emphasis on games and programming, the plot never really gathered suspense for me in the way it aims to and, though I liked the characters, I was more amused and interested than invested in their plight. A mention that dying in a foreign game means you won’t be regenerated seems shoehorned in as an afterthought – the stakes seem cribbed from The Matrix and Inception, to name two movies that more successfully make dangerous levels of “reality” a defining feature – and never really comes into play, but no matter. It’s lightning fast and often very funny and cute. Besides, why inject such expectations into what is intended and plays most satisfactorily as nothing more than a blast of affectionate sugary delight with surges of nostalgia for adults of a certain age?
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