Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens: A Meta-Western

Yes, it is the kind of high-concept kitsch that studio pitches are made of (“what if we had a cop movie, see, but the cop is an extra-terrestrial”). Yet this most unlikely of goofy summer popcorn flicks is actually a pretty decent Western, and a sly social commentary on our run-down economy to boot.

Daniel Craig plays the Clint Eastwood role as the mysterious stranger with a past (Jake Lonergan). He wakes up in the middle of the desert with a metal thingamabob on his wrist and no memory about who he is. Yet he hasn’t lost is reflexes and karate chops a posse of highway men who attempt to rob him as quick as you can say “genre bender.” He is clearly one bad dude who has had one really bad night.

Into town he rolls, and soon finds himself up against the local town robber baron, Woodrow Dolarhyde – played with marvelous gruff charm by Harrison Ford, making one of the best big screen comebacks since Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Dolarhyde is the type who nearly – but not quite – draws and quarters a suspicious ranch hand telling strange stories about blasts from the sky. Who’d have thought that Ford had yet to do some of his finest work, and would do so in an end-of-summer movie that seems to have been created out of some all-night screenwriting drug-induced bender? Dolarhyde’s son, a good-for-nothing skinny bully, strolls into town – drunk or cocky or both – every so often to wreck havoc on the townsfolk. This time he encounters Lonergan, who immediately makes him an enemy, along with Dolarhyde, of course.

Then the aliens arrive, and all hell breaks lose. The aliens fly around in cheap metal go-carts (how’d they get here in those jalopies?) and lasso the townsfolk to take them back to their mother ship for who-knows-what kind of disgusting probing, slave labor, or gourmet dining. They are just enough like disgusting, green cattle rustlers kidnapping a bunch of injuns that this plot development feels not at all unnatural and – aside from the laser beams – actually a rather classic Western development. Naturally, the sheriff asks Longergan to assemble a posse of beleaguered townsfolk – including Dolarhyde, of course – to set out after their stolen kin.

What follows is scripted from the playbook of every classic Western that has come before, as Jake needs to regain his memory and his purpose, Dolarhyde needs to regain his heart and his passion, a little boy needs to take his first steps towards manhood, and the two men find they are more complicated – and more alike – than they seemed at first.

Meanwhile, those aliens and their Arcosanti inspired ship are here doing some serious strip mining, and it will take real cooperation amongst the various warring Western factions to scare them off. This is where one might stretch and say the movie plays into the present day angst by giving us a predator class, not unlike present day politicians and bankers, who are after one thing – our gold – and a populous of various competing interests who need to wake up and cooperate if they are to realize that these predators see them as nothing more than food.

The aliens and their warren of a ship seem a bit stolen from every other recent sci-fi, but never-you-mind. This is really an old-fashioned Western more than a sci-fi, and it follows all the good old Western tropes. Who’d have thought it would have taken a visit from outer space to inspire some of the best Western writing the genre has seen in decades?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Captain America: The Last Superhero

Marvel is out to do something that no one has ever done before: translate the world of comics, whole cloth, to the screen. It has been methodically recreating superhero origin stories from its Avengers classic comics series since the first Iron Man movie in 2008. All this is leading up to an actual Avengers movie for next year. Given the unevenness of the movies so far, whether it will have been worth the effort remains an open question.

The last – or most recent – superhero to have his origin story cinematized is Captain America, who also happens to be the oldest Avenger. Created during World War Two as a kind of Marvel version of Superman (that is, a classic square jawed, Nazi-pounding, muscle boy who seduces dames when not fighting evil and flying Old Glory), this 2011 version of that early Twentieth Century story seeks to recreate that all-American hero “on the nose,” as they like to say in Hollywood.

On the nose – that’s the phrase that producers use about a screenplay when it telegraphs its intent all too clearly. In this case I use it to mean that this Captain America is about as sincere a recreation of that “aw shucks” all-American hero as one could seriously get away with in these post-modern, "Glee"-inflected times. Chris Evans shaves his oversized, well-oiled chest to give us a hero whose superpower seems to be male modeling and who gets in the requisite necessary beefcake shots (though clearly not enough to keep my interest in this movie). He smiles, jogs, and acrobats his way with affable enough likability through the film, though the plot that surrounds him feels like tissue paper manufactured solely for the purpose of his tearing gleefully through it.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all you need to know about how he got those massive shoulders, although for some reason the filmmakers felt that what you got in twenty seconds in the trailer needed a good forty-five minutes in the theater (forty-five minutes of Evan’s training ritual would have been leagues more interesting than what we’re given here). The rotoscoping effect used to make Evans look puny in the opening sequences is the same one used to much more believability in Benjamin Button: here, it just seems like the actor’s stepped in front of fun-house mirror.

Once the real beefed up Evan emerges, the story gets some legs (literarily), thought where it decides to go is hopelessly uninteresting. Some manufactured nonsense with Hugo Weaving as a Nazi spin-off (why not the real thing?) whose creation mirrors that of Captain America. Though the parallels could be interesting they are not explored: instead, we get a Force Ten from Naverone attempt to storm into the Nazi lair for the purposes of nabbing some “Warehouse 13”-like artifact whose abilities are never really explained. To say we’ve seen all this before would not be quite true because even in the most uninspired Indiana Jones flick we’re treated to a plot with more going on than this; Captain America exposes us to a new low in uninspired filmmaking.

Only Evans and his – ahem – “acting talents” gives this film any interest.

It’s a shame, really, especially after an entertaining Thor earlier this summer. Clearly we might have gotten a much better Captain America film than this, if only our luck with screenwriters and directors had held firm. Let’s just hope that for the Avengers movie, Marvel decides to lead with its A team.

Harry Potter & Deathly Hallows Part 2

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for this final installment in the 8-part franchise is that the story is finally over. Dragged on to the point now where it's already old news that the main actors are appearing nude in arty Broadway productions and being taunted on Saturday Night Live dirty skits, the actors are a bit long-in-the-tooth to still be playing high-school seniors, the mysteries set up ages ago have long faded into memory, and the main feeling one gets from this close of the final chapter is, well, relief.

This final installment is naturally more dark - and more violent - than any that have come before. Not a few students meet their makers and the epic battle between dark and light takes places unflinchingly. As a parable for World War Two (with Voldemort as a kind of Hitleresque figure come to seduce, divide, and conquer the weaker minds of an English prep school), the story delivers a satisfying final confrontation, including a scene where Harry must kill the Voldemort within himself in order to truly defeat evil.

The wizardry behind the special effects are particularly superb in this final chapter. Teachers at Hogwarts, beseaged by leagues of Voldemort's evil-doers, erect a kind of defense force field that has all the charm of fairy dust combined with the power of a Star Trek force field - an appropriate type of white magic that gives the assorted pupils and instructors the precious minutes they need to prepare for battle once Voldemort discovers that Harry is on the grounds. Meanwhile, Harry and friends hunt for the final horcrux where Voldemort has stashed a piece of his soul, wands flash red and white in the ensuing battle, and the familiar school is laid waste as the scene of tremendous explosions and bloodshed. Key to the story, as well, is the revelation of Snape's heretofore unrevealed relationship to Harry, and his true allegiences, as well as the sacrifices all of the adults made in an earlier war in order to keep Harry safe and give him this time and place in the spotlight.

Some may evaluate this then as the best of the Harry Potter lot and it certainly does wrap everything up that one would wish to see summed, zapped, or otherwise disposed of. For me, despite the tremendous effects and satisfaction of denoument, it lacks the artistry of Part 1 (particularly the Deathly Hollows story, which gets rather ignored here in favor of the action scenes). I also miss the tonal tension of the mid-story movies - say Goblet of Fire, with the fun Twiwizard tournament, which may be the best in the series. Those earlier stories got the balance right between serious menace and the structured safety of preparatory school. This final Potter feels simply like all-out war. Effective, to be sure, but also preposterous, no longer a metaphor for high school but story grown a bit too epic for the likes of Hogwarts.

Also, as the story races to tie up characters, relatives, in-laws, and friends, one feels as if there is both too little time being spent and way too much. Some characters rush past - if you haven't read the books, as I haven't, their mention has little import - while others, like Snape, have their stories revealed in an over-edited blur. In final review, with the last four movies all exploring the same Horcrux-based wild goose chase (and all having, basically, the same extended plot), this series could have used way fewer side characters and a couple less feature films. But then I supposed it wouldn't have made as many billions as it has.

If you've made it through the first seven films, there's no doubt you need to see the series reach its final conclusion. What began as a magic-based metaphor for the eternal rituals of secondary school has grown, like a sparrow affected by one of those enlargement spells, into a Manichean epic importing the spectre of fascism and war. Spectacular as it is, this story has gone on just a little bit too long for us to really care.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tree of Life: Overwrought Masterpiece by the Elusive Terrence Malick

Hailed by critics as both a work of genius and pretientious twaddle - and by some as both - Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is certainly a film of amazing ambition, cinematic brilliance, poetic storytelling, and yes, a self-indulgent exhibition, at times, of visual cliche. I can only think of one movie in recent memory that comes close to Malick's intent to use film to create an ecstatic, religious meditation on the meaning of existence - Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful.

But where Biutiful is unswerving, dark, distressing, and mystical, Tree of Life is graceful, poetic, meditative, and expansive. So expansive, in fact, that Malick decides, about twenty minutes into the film, to give us a visual narrative taking us from the big bang to the birth of the main character. He's trying to connect the whole of life, you see, along this unbreaking thread of cosmic existence. Not for naught has the movie been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. It's not just the cosmic slide show: The wide-angle shots of rooms, dinner tables, and attics also convey the same sense of human spareness in the universe as did Kubrick's film. We witness all the characters as if through a dream, or gauze, or the haze of fading memory.

Existence is summed up in this film by Jack - the main character - who is played by Sean Penn as an adult (whose context is unfortunately stripped a bit too bare) and by the marvelous newcomer Hunter McCracken as a young boy. In fact, all the three young boys - a band of brothers being raised by an organ-playing, electrical plant worker in the 1950's south (Brad Pitt) and his waiflike but devoted wife (Jessica Chastain) - are wonderful, and their horseplay and affection is an amazing recreation of the freedom and wonder of childhood. In many ways I could have thoroughly enjoyed this movie for the family dynamic exposed in between the big notable scenes of galaxies forming and ghosts assembling on the beach, and done without all the big, controversial effects.

Except that Malick is after something else, here - not so much story as poetry, and to do so, he needs to pepper this movie with big spiritual themes. The stated themes of nature and grace, of course, but also the conflict between water and glass (water, which moves with the grace of nature, and glass, which both separates us, freezes us in time, and allows us to see through). It seems that has we have grown up from the tree-filled back-yards of our 1950's youth, when we would frolic in the fumes of DDT or on the shores of ancient lakes, we have been encased in more and more glass - not only have the windows in the houses gotten larger and more sleek, we work in an urban world of glass towers where a single tree is a rarity. There is also the implication that our human dynamics were set down long ago as part of the course of nature. The pose of the two dinosaurs who appear on a stream - one holding down the neck of the other, who is lying disabled - mirrors the pose of the father when he grabs the mother, holding her tight until all the fight leaves her body. This is risky but powerful stuff, the kind that can take your breath away.

At the same time, there's that beach scene, with all the dredged up religious symbolism. I appreciate that Malick is working in a religious tradition (he sites the trials of Job throughout the film). But the movie is most ecstatic, in my opinion, when he leaves traditional religious symbolism behind and delves more deeply into his own personal eye: the shots of a streetlight on the family lawn, or the impressions of a baby looking out the window at his mother. The cumulative effect is like that "Star Trek" episode where Picard lives an entire life in a few short minutes: we get to experience, in the memory of Jack, the particular time and place of growing up in a particular house on a certain street in a specific southern town: a town with tensions between races, with wide lakes and open fields for boys to play in, with a certain house that itself is like a character stitched into memory and now passed away like Jack's beloved brother or his other family. It is an almost Faulknerian sense of time and place and Malick captures it with brilliant emotion and love.

We also get to experience those very specific people - the father (Pitt here gives perhaps his best performance) and the mother, their specific conflict and how that turmoil, the yin and yang of life, passes down through the generations. Their complexities - the love and hate tied up together, the resentment and blessedness - are far far from the black and white characters of our summer comic fare and the kind of human portrait that cinema used to be so much better at.

Could Malick have used a less indulgent sensibility, a better understanding of the adult Jack and the feelings that drive him, and a more thought out ending? Certainly. But then, it's hard to end a story about existence - and we might not have gotten a film as brilliant as this one is.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Michael Bay Goes Boom for 4th of July

It's almost become routine: another 4th of July, another Transformers movie. Whether this one is better than the last is hard to say. It's certainly sillier - which may be a refreshment. It's definitely bloodier, which makes it suspect for young kids. And whatever it is, it's definitely filled to the gils with stunts, destructive car-transforming robots, and the ever maturing Shia Lebeouf, who by now has the manic stuttering of his Wikwicky character down pat.

It's a few years later, Shia (I mean Sam) has had his co-star replaced by another hot-blond babe (this one English), and like all good young people he's struggling with his economic prospects and having been excluded from the Transformers team (still be led on rogue stunts by the intrepid Josh Duhamel). This time the plot is set in motion when those ever enterprising Decepticons break into Chernobyl and leave some compelling evidence for the Auto-bot team. Apparently an old, powerful prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) is stuck in suspended animation, frozen on the dark side of the moon, and the Decepticons just need Optimus to revive him so they can carry out their latest dastardly deed.

The rest of the plot hardly matters. What this movie really wants to do is revive old favorite characters (John Tuturo returns, kookier than ever), introduce some new ones (John Malkovich takes a humorous turn as Sam's wacked-out boss, then disappears pointlessly from the plot), tweak the culture - some references to the recession, high-finance, and terrorism, in case we forgot what decade this is - and have at it with those cars and robots.

In a film like this, I'm not sure it would help to try to develop the story any further anyway - Earth is once again in jeopardy and there are bad guys and all, just like the last time, and really, what else do you need to know? But I did find the slog through the last forty-five minutes of the film - where the city of Chicago is pounded mercilessly by an outer space robot attack - particularly insufferable. We all know that Bay is an insatiable borrower and these Transformer films assemble, really, like spare parts from other filmmaker's sci fi, but the Matrix-y air ships, Terminator urban wreckage, and War of the World vapor effects really aren't even trying to feel original. Bay's maxim seems to be quantity trumps quality as he stuffs the last act of the movie full of every stunt he can conceive of.

Individually, each of these is pretty cool: the para-trooping troops with their black wings flying about the Chicago skyline, or the toppling over building with the desperate characters trying to hang on to the sixtieth floor as they dangle over Chicago, each deliver a genuine thrill. But the effect of piling these on endlessly for so long is to numb you not only of the story but of the movie going experience. You're taken right out of the screen and start examining your nails or looking for an escape to the bathroom. It's as if he's imagined the movie right out of the theatrical experience and into the living room of a distracted family, or Best Buy showroom, where you don't really need to sit and follow anything at all, just catch a few minutes of the endlessly looping high def visual popcorn.

What's ultimately so wacky about this movie is that juxtaposition of high-low, high low. An almost surreal comic first two acts - where even Francis McDormand is directed to maniacal silliness - is followed by a third act of supreme bloody seriousness and self absorption. In between there is no modulation, just grunts, hupcaps, and metal. It almost strikes me as psychotic, and in a way, a perfect representation of the American character.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Beginners: Gay Dad Teaches Son About Love

What a great little film this is, and a real respite from summer-movie gore and sci-fi - if you need a break from that sort of thing.

Beginners is one of those films about life and love, but with a unique perspective: Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, the straight son of a gay man (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) who comes out in his early Seventies after forty years of marriage. Plummer is spot on as the man who sheds his formerly straight skin to explore the gay world for the first time, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager.

Hal only has a few years to savor his new life before he's struck with lung cancer, and Oliver has to care for his father to the end, as well as hold the secret of his terminal illness from Hal's lover and friends. Meanwhile, Oliver himself has no knack for girls, until he find one - Anna, played marvelously by the illuminated Melanie Laurant - whom he hopes will be the one to stay.

A film like this lives or dies by the story telling, and the writing here is fantastic - pointillist and impressionistic, jumping through time, and filled with metaphor and keen observation. Here are just a few of the things I loved in this film:

  • A cute Jack Russell terrier (I'm a sucker for dogs, aren't I?) who speaks to Oliver in long, erudite sentences translated in silence.
  • Again silence as Anna has laryngitis when they first meet, and they have to negotiate their first date with hand signals and a small pad of paper.
  • Oliver's voice-over narration, which peppers the world with things as they are: a kind of scrapbook of life that is a poignant counterpart to his father's inevitable dying.
  • Oliver's mother, a woman who is unhappy but not defeated, and just quirky enough to leave Oliver with a botched up view of himself and the world.
  • The childlike way in which Hal discovers himself in the gay world, and the role reversal that takes place between himself and his son - with Oliver taking care of Hal, yet still, or perhaps more than ever, learning important things from him.

All this is great and I wish the central relationship - between Oliver and Anna - could stand up to everything else going on around them. Both of them are supposed to be a little sad and broken, yes (Oliver sketches these portraits of people he calls "the sads"). But it's all a little bit too precious, especially seeing as how savvy Oliver is about his life, his own predilections and desires.

I supposed that can be forgiven when one is treated to such keen observation everywhere else. If there's one movie that I would gladly say is for everyone this summer - young or old, gay or straight, fearless or feckless - this would be it.

Green Lantern: No Light in the Superhero Fog

This emerald-colored sci-fi comic creation opens promisingly: with an appropriately menacing CGI baddy - a being called Parallax that powers itself with the energy of fear - floating through space, wreaking death and havoc. Then there's the home world of the Lantern Core, a place filled with the green light of pure willpower and 7200 Green Lanterns - drawn from races throughout the universe - sworn to protect the universe against evil, a kind of intergalactic CIA special forces team. They have cool flying spaceship pods and those fashionable green rings (not to mention skin-tight green suits), and they're as Booya as a team of military recruits fresh from the World Wrestling Federation.

Then we cut to that human on planet Earth - Hal Jordan, played with deadly sincere deadpan joylessness by poster boy Ryan Renalds (who, it should be known, can be in other contexts somewhat interesting) - and the entire shebang grinds to a halt.

Jordan is a good-for-nothin' flyboy in the spirit of Top Gun and just about every other airborne cliche (including the Airplane films, which was supposed to end this kind of earnest silliness). Watching him ham it over half-baked dialogue with even more dreadful co-star Blake Lively is about as painful as summer moviegoing can get.

Which is a shame, since the D.C. comic universe is filled with great characters, and the Green Lanterns were always some of my childhood favorites.

Naturally, one of those Lanterns gets killed in the line of duty, and down to Earth floats the ring to chose - none other than our super boring hero, Mr. Jordan.

To give Jordan some antagonist to thrust against we have the always wonderful Peter Sarsgaard, who gets to chew the scenery in the role of creepy nerd-turned-infected-space-baddy Hector Hammond. Unfortunately, Hammond's character is redundant to the all-power-all-fearing Parallax and - at about the point you'd expect - is easily dispensed with.

Even this evil invasion of fear is under-imagined as a yet-again-recreation of September 11th smoke-filled imagery (once chilling when Spielberg did it in War of the Worlds, now merely a b-version of Harry Potter sorcery).

All this would be bearable - for the outer space scenes are well rendered and the comic tension well preserved throughout - were it not that the translation of the Green Lantern's key effect, that of trans-substantiating his will into any object of his choosing using the power of his green ring, comes off much more dorky on film than the idea looks in a printed comic. That and also that any scene where Renalds has to talk for more than five seconds inevitably turns deadly dull.

After seeing this movie, one has to ask whether there are not, indeed, some comic book characters that don't deserve to star in their own film. If there is anything to fear here, it's that the universe of entertaining superheros is quickly running thin.

Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen's Inception

Woody Allen’s latest – Midnight in Paris – holds a special place in my heart, and I suspect in the heart of anybody who’s ever wanted to be a writer. For all of us deluded romantic writers, there was inevitably a time in our lives (typically right after college) when we contemplated moving to Paris and devoting our lives to living in a garret, soaking up the art and atmosphere of Paris, and producing the great American novel, in the tradition of all those great American expatriates of the Twenties: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, etc.

Allen takes this writer’s conceit and makes it come true – but in a uniquely Woody Allen fashion. As in movies like Purple Rose of Cairo or Alice, Allen taps into his unique brand of Magical Realism, where characters' fantasies come alive only to illustrate the silliness of their neuroses. In this case, the fantasy of the writer (Gil, played by Owen Wilson)- who finds Paris thrillingly romantic while his fiancé and her Republican parents find it simply noisy, irritating, and a mall for expensive souvenirs and show-ground for pompous ex-boyfriends – comes true precisely at midnight each night. It’s at this bewitching hour when a carriage comes past a quaint old street corner, beckons for the writer to get in, and transports him, temporarily, into the past, where he gets to hobnob with the romantic greats: the actual Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and more (including some humorous appearances by surrealists like Dali and Brunuel).

All this happens at night and the writer increasingly finds validation in the passions, inspirations, and energy of his past companions, while increasing the tensions with his alienated fiancé and her insipid parents. While the characters from the past are perfectly impersonated and the scenes of Paris nightlife in the Twenties are perfectly rendered, the present conflict with Gil’s girlfriend and parents feels particularly flat and uninspired, the usual Woody Allen schtick about unhappy relationships and people who really aren’t meant to be together.

It’s no surprise when one of the characters in Gil’s fantasy of the twenties herself has a fantasy about an older artistic time – the Belle Epoque – and like the movie Inception, convinces Gil to travel another level down into the dream into yet another level of romantic delusions. One can imagine Allen watching the movie Inception and thinking, “I know what to do for my next film.”

The real star of this movie, however, is Paris itself. Woody has become the chronicler of great international cities – giving us the creativity of New York, the class formality of London. And clearly, the romanticism of Paris. Allen opens his films with a series of still shots of Paris scenery, taking us through an entire day – including a rainstorm, sights of deserted street corners and parks, and finally the falling night and bright lights on the Champs Elysee. Each shot is held long enough for us to detect the life slowly moving in the background. They are small works of art, like the moments of time spent in the city itself. When the writer debates life and art with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, he comes to understand why this city has so inspired so many artists before him.

Like his other magical realist yarns, this one too gets tied up in a nice little bow, and everything resolves neatly in the end. For those of us who aren’t writers, the Inception twist will seem a little predictable, and the relationship tensions flat. For those of us whose memories are jogged by Allen’s exploration of this perennial romantic writer’s notion, the guest starring artistic celebrities will give us the same thrill as they do for Gil, and Allen’s movie may be the best expression ever rendered of the particular romantic fantasy that is Paris.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8: JJ Abrams’ Salute to Spielberg

Super 8 wants to create the experience of a high-school nerd growing up in Ohio in the summer of 1978. As a former Ohioan who was in high school that summer, I know exactly what Abrams is going for. It was an exquisite summer of sci-fi: Star Wars and Jaws, the mystery of friendship and hormones and the wonders of outer space. The movie opens with an industrial accident at a small town near Dayton. Then a diminutive high-school boy sits on a lonely snow-covered porch of his ranch-style house as neighbors and his father hold a memorial lunch. It’s a town of small, close-cropped houses that every kid wants to escape from. Neighbors wonder about how the boy will get along without his mother. A long-haired, long-sideburn dude drives up in a beat-up, yellow Mustang – the car’s engine rumbling over and over after the ignition shuts down – and goes inside. An argument ensues. The boys’ father, a cop, cuffs the dude, brings him back outside, and puts him in his police car. A title card says “Four Months Later.” Then the action starts.

What Abrams has here is essentially a salute to Spielberg. What follows is the perfect amalgam of every Spielberg movie ever made: a distilled blend of Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Saving Private Ryan, and ET, with a good deal of Stephen King's Stand by Me for good measure. Only Abrams adds his own metafictional gloss: the five young high school friends are filming a movie. What they capture on camera however is more otherworldly than anything they bargained for.

The hero of the film, Joe – the sad boy on that porch – is clearly a stand-in for the young filmmaker, and this is also clearly a very personal story. Abrams gets every detail of small-town ’78 Ohio just right – from the men’s greasy hairstyles to the sad, brick-and-stone ‘50’s ranch houses stuffed full of model trains, sci-fi-posters, film equipment and obscure magazines. The “production values” here are clearly borne from intimate experience. Joe is a bit of a blank slate: his mother just dead, all he has to cling to his an old locket she gave him, which has her picture holding him as a baby. What keeps him going is his friendship with a bigger, fatter kid named Charles, who is making a zombie movie, and has that talkative, obsessive energy of preteens discovering their first passion. There are other recognizable Jr. High characters too: the always slightly dazed cameraman, the shy actor who only comes out of his shell around Charles’ schemes, and the buck-tooth kid who carries his M-80’s everywhere and only wants to blow things up. Meanwhile, Joe’s father, a high-ranking cop, has his own problems: equally shut down as Joe, he won’t let his son see him crying in the bathroom, and his anger at the Mustang-driving dude (Louis Dainard…inevitably, Joe gets involved with Alice, Dainard’s daughter) is clearly a bomb waiting at the heart of the movie.

Then a train derails in front of the kids as they are filming their zombie movie (the scene of the kids doing their movie – and the lead up to the train derailment – is one of the film’s most hilarious – and maybe an instant cinematic classic). Something…well, alien…escapes from the train. And then everything goes to hell.

Like any good monster flick, what’s loose in the town is highly metaphoric. One could say it stands for the bad blood between Joe’s father and Dainard. One could say it’s the grief over the death of Joe’s mother. Maybe it’s physical manifestation of the Spielbergian imagination influencing the young filmmaker’s mind. Whatever it is, it’s got eight legs, moves likes a JJAbrams “Fringe” cross between a spider and a tiger, and is out for blood. Like Jaws, we only slowly get the monster revealed from the shadows. Members of the community start disappearing one by one.

This is classic sci-fi film making. Only a few big special effects scenes happen in the movie and they’re used with style. Almost a rebuke to a summer of X-Men and Transformers stuffed full of CGI effects, Abrams takes his time – almost the entire film – setting up the story, and lets the story, rather than the effects, drive the emotion in the film. The characters even comment about it as we go, explaining that setting up a good story is what makes us care about the characters (it’s why they are out there filming on that train station, and why they draft the young ingénue Alice as a love interest for the boys, and subject of peril for the plot).

The story is formulaic, but for a summer sci-fi, Abrams handles it with aplomb. Joe learns to be more of a hero – like his father – while his father learns to appreciate his kid. Meanwhile, Joe gets to look the monster in the eye, and everything is resolved when Joe decides to let go of his mother’s locket. The locket sails up to the town water tower, which then implodes with a shower of water, like a baptism, over the war-torn town.

If anything, Abrams goes too far in setting up the story of the characters. By the time we come to care about the reality of the inhabitants of this town, the introduction of the zombie-movie-style monster feels tonally wrong – too comic book-y. This could have easily been fixed by holding the monster to a higher standard. No one needs to die, except perhaps the bad-guy Sergeant, and even he could have been more than a one-dimensional foil. But I think Abrams is on too much of a Jurrasic park style role and felt more blood needed to be shed to get proper monster movie chills. I just felt that was the wrong metaphor for this story, which had started out to be so much more. If Joe is really the empathic one in the town – the misunderstood dreamer who only wants to get away and live his life – then the monster is his doppelganger, and it should have a conscience too.

It’s a great film. But by missing this crucial insight about the monster, it misses out on being a sci-fi classic. I wish it could have gotten there. It’s a bit like ET without getting that final music score. A great tribute to Spielberg, and a wonderful bit of nostalgia for all us nerds who group up loving those films. In the end almost, but not quite, Spielbergian.

X-Men First Class: Mutants Come of Age

With over forty years of X-Men stories to draw from, there is an endless repository of mutants and their history for Marvel to create sequels and spin-offs of this successful movie franchise. They chose wisely. With Bryan Singer back at the keyboards and the choice to feature the founding of the X-Men clan, the series regains the emotional resonance of the first two X-Men movies and delivers the kind of thrilling, coded political action-packed potboiler we’ve come to expect.

This film flashes us back to 1962 (and even farther, to fill in the origin story for Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Dr. X (James McAvoy)), before the X-Men existed but mutants roams wild causing trouble. One particular mutant – Sebastian Shaw – has the power to absorb and deploy energy at his will, and is bent on starting World War Three (in a comic book, alternate reality version of the Cuban Missile Crisis). As it happens, Eric Lehnsherr (yet to become Magneto) has a blood feud with Shaw, and is hunting him down to kill him. An intrepid female FBI agent is also on the case (MacTagertt), and when she teams up with the young Dr. Xavier and a CIA agent who happens to have a prototype of the device called Cerebro, all the ingredients are in place to start drafting the first X-Men class.

What is fabulous about all this is that this film gets just the right cultural ingredients into its pop-corn-flick cocktail: a clearly gay-coded discourse on mutant pride, a splash of retro Sixties brat-pack chic, and a twist of Men in Black, all over a bit of rocks in the personage of Emma Frost (January Jones of “Mad Men” fame), a steely dame who can read minds and turn herself to diamonds. While many summer movies seem like an unimaginative rip-off of the last few stories of recent years, with X-Men First Class, one gets more of an entertaining gloss of the moment, combining style elements from "Mad Men" and Tarantino with "True Blood," "Glee," and Bond, but in the service of its own original X-i-fied story. Sets like the “war room” and the Sixth Fleet are inspired by our cultural memory more than the real thing – looking more like Dr. Strangelove and Das Boot than anything from reality. This is why the insertion of real-life clips of Kennedy feel so false, in one of the film’s few wrong moves.

At the heart of this story is the emotional growth of the character of Magneto. Rumor has it that the originally planned release for this year – a full Magneto movie – was superseded by this flick, which combines Magneto’s back story with Dr. X and gives us a full class of original, teenage X-Men just learning about their powers, including Mystique, Havoc, Banshee, and Beast. But it’s still Erik Lehnsherr’s story that drives the arch of the film. Lehnsherr’s mother was killed in the Nazi camps by a younger Shaw (or older, since he gets younger as he gets more powerful). The murder of his mother unleashes Lehnsherr’s powers by tapping into two powerful emotions: anger and pain. The subsequent effect of Lehnsherr manipulating all the metal in the room gets to the core of what makes these movies work so well: the external representation of an internal emotion. When those filing cabinets get crushed and the metal knives and tables go flying we see exactly what Lehnsherr feels in that moment, and it’s powerful and brutal.

And as any good cultural studies student would discern, the external superpowers of the characters in this series are also a manifestation of their subconscious egos. When Lehnsherr raises the submarine from the depths of the ocean only through the force of his will, we know it symbolizes his raising of his subconscious, integrated self. The audience may not read this in so Freudian a way but the symbolism is powerful, and everyone feels it, nonetheless. Dr. X, then, is kind of the group’s psychotherapist, coaching each of the members to their full selves. Havoc’s inability to control his cosmic ray blasts is the perfect metaphor for the sloppy havoc of teenagerdome, and Dr. X is here to teach these kids the control necessary to become functioning adults.

More than the ego-driven Wolverine movie, First Class focuses on the team again, and especially on the developing friendship between Magneto and Dr. X. Singer has always been more at home telling ensemble-driven stories. Even if it doesn’t have the ‘cool mutant’ effect of Wolverine, such dramatic interplay between the main characters gives this film more resonance. Xavier brings the necessary rationality and focus to train his charges, including the anger-filled Magneto. The scene in which he captures a memory of Lehnsherr’s mother and teaches him to use that sense of “serenity” to improve his skill and range is not only well done; it’s the movie’s emotional core. The application of rationality to raw pain isn’t a bad lesson and the movie delivers it with both grace (Fassbender and McAvoy shine most in this moment) and the necessary visual flare.

After this high point, however, the movie races into its third act with little time for subtlety. My one irritation with the film is how tightly it’s been edited – there’s no time to breathe between scenes, and the rushing adrenaline of the music never lets up. As we rewrite the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and race into the final battle between mutants, too little time is left to fully develop the climax. Shaw is dispatched in a thematically resonant – but most unsatisfying – way (he isn’t able to put up any fight, which is disappointing given all the potential energy he just absorbed, literally). Meanwhile, characters choose up sides and obvious dialogue opportunities are missed as the movie races to complete itself in the audience-tested time limit. And while Magneto’s arch is well completed and bits of familiar trappings are filled in, we never really get to see how Xavier became the man he is on the inside. Adding five minutes of scenic transitions to the last half hour of this film would have served it well.

However, enough is packed into this confection of angst and superpowers that it’s worth seeing twice – as any good summer blockbuster should be. In a 2011 summer season filed with tent pole series blockbusters, it may not be the most original, and certainly not an out-of-the-park masterpiece. But it’s a solid hit to second, which is a great way to kick off the season.

Kung Fu Panda Two: Suffering From Sequelitis

As someone said to me before I saw this movie – once Po becomes supreme Kung Fu master and conquers the world, where could the story possibly go from there?

The first Kung Fu Panda surprised and delighted with the concept of a fat boy (Po, voiced by Jack Black) who envies kung fu heroes, and who really learns to master the art of athleticism and power. The sequel struggles mightily with the problem of what dramatic conflict to challenge the master with from here. In fact, it needs to spend the first two thirds laboriously undercutting everything that the first movie built up, by introducing a second major character flaw (the first, obviously, is that pandas would rather eat than fight). But now that this panda is the kung fu hero of the town, we find out that he has another problem he is struggling with – he doesn’t know who he is. That is, he’s been adopted, and there is a terrible repressed memory about his early childhood that is blocking him from his full powers at the time of most need. In order to overcome that repressed memory, he needs to master “inner peace.”

This puts the sequel now squarely in the realm of pop psychology, and it loses much because of it. Not only is the psycho-pop struggle of Po’s childhood signaled about fifteen moves back from when it’s necessary, it’s endlessly repeated just in case it hadn’t sunk in the first fourteen times.

Meanwhile we need a new super villain to fight. This one is a Peacock, and he’s invented gun powder. This gives him a technological advantage (or so it would seem) over the older technology of kung fu. One could go in so many directions with this parable of an arms race, but in the end, the movie chooses just one: how will Po overcome his childhood angst to use Kung Fu to defeat the Peacock’s weapons? Boring, I know, and a disappointment for a film series whose first episode surprised us with the humor in the dumpling-loving panda’s unlikely situation. For this reason, this film lacks the first’s wit and for long stretches is even a bit of a slog.

However, taking its inspiration from other fabulously inked children’s series – one thinks of the title sequences of Lemmony Snicket or Wall-E – the animation and art direction here rises above the story, and keeps this uninspired sequel afloat. To illustrate flashbacks, the art takes on a flat, two-dimensional black and white, stop-time quality that is really quite fascinating. Combined with the score, this is once again a case of talented below-the-line staff keeping a studio-forumula production from sinking into irrelevance. Even if adult attentions may flag, there’s enough visual popcorn flashing by on screen to keep the kids fascinated for two hours.

Once the third-act turn comes – and the panda realizes the source of his angst and decides to take action – the story is able to get past the laborious set-up and finally kick into gear. Once that happens, the old magic of the first film finally returns: the characters are moving forward with purpose again. This is where this movie should have started (and just dispensed with the crippling mystery). Po still has to figure out how to overcome the technological advantage of his adversary, but this is the essence of this series charm: we like to see this plush-size panda on purposeful action to overcome stunningly overwhelming odds.

We get 1/3rd a film here then for the price of a whole one. It feels a bit of a rip off. If the trend continues with the next film, it won’t even be worth the price of the rental.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rio and Pirates of the Caribbean: Happy Birds & Angry Pirates

It's not yet Memorial Day, yet it seems that summer is officially here, and it's time to entertain the kiddies.

Rio - Fox's animated entry voiced by Jesse Eisenberg (of Social Network fame) and Anne Hathaway as a pair of rare, Brazilian macaws who are captured by bird pirates and have to find their way back home, gives a feathered furry of a try, replete with tail-feather-shaking musical numbers dropped into the plot (the characters completely stop whatever they are doing when it's time for a song).

The story arc of Rio seems to have been lifted from Pixar's Up: A sentimental opening coda leads to a set-in-their ways pair (Linda, a bookstore owner, who fawns adoringly over her super smart - almost puppy seeming - pet Macaw, Blue) who are interrupted in life by an overly obsequious busy-body (in this case, a Brazilian ornithologist who wants to mate Blue with the only remaining macaw - a beauty whose personality more resembled that of a Shrew - named Jewel). Off the trio go on a misadventures and misfortune, only to learn about love, friendship, and independence. In these days of Pixar, Tron, and Avatar, the animation feels no more advanced than a 1970's Saturday morning cartoon. A few flying shots when Blue finally figures out how to aerodynamically accelerate himself (love and faith are the key) have a fun freedom, but most of the dance numbers hardly make a step forward from the original Mickie Mouse Barn Dance.

More remarkable that this movie - which has all the inspiration of a video game interstitial - is the mobile app it's paired with, Rovio's Angry Birds. The app is quite a sensation (200 million downloads, which has to be a quantum leap above the audience for this movie). One imagines that app is more entertaining than the movie, which spends most of its time on three-year-old monkey jokes. Rio does have a fey and menacing bad guy in the form of a big white parakeet named Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clement), as well as the voice of Tracy Morgan behind a big sloppy bulldog, but neither of these assets is well exploited. They got a lot of names into this movie, but it's Rovio, the studio behind Angry Birds, who brings any kind of technical panache, and that, unfortunately, can only be experienced on your phone.

Meanwhile, Disney's fourth attempt at a Pirates movie (On Stranger Tides) finally gets the formula right. Back again is seemingly perpetually anachronistically stoned Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), as well as a few favorites like Pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), as well as a few hardy newcomers (Penelope Cruz, and a marvelously gruff Ian McShane as Blackbeard).

All motion is set in action when the Spanish king discovers the whereabouts of the fountain of youth, and tells his Admiral to set sail. The English king can't let the Spanish best him at the discovery, and so Jack Sparrow is entreated to go after the Spanish. Jack has his own ideas, however, and soon finds himself running from the English (led by Barbossa) and joining camp with Blackbeard and Cruz, as his daughter, as they all race for the treasure of immortality.

This Pirates is directed by Rob Marshall, rather than Gore Verbinksi - who directed the first three - and I must say, what an improvement. While I found the other Pirates glib to the point of being impossible to follow, and full of dead spaces and useless dialogue, this one is all economy and forward action. By this point, Depp has mined all the ironic postmodern gestures in the character and has settled in to a kind of aging, perpetually pubescent swashbuckler who simply wants to pilot a ship again. Meanwhile, Rush and McShane chew the scenery ferociously, and a strong dose of sincerity in the form of a handsome missionary in love with a beautiful young mermaid keeps the emotions anchored. Marshall keeps everyone moving forward towards the fountain and never slows down the pace - from daring escapes to flying sword fights - as the characters race across the seas.

I'm still not that big a fan of the series - as far as pirates go, these are about as mechanical as the Disney ride they're based on. But if I had to pick a pop-corn munching Saturday matinee for the kids, filled with daring escapes, fun bon mots, and exotic locales, this one far outstrips its birdbrained companion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Win Win – A Feel Good Reality Check

Paul Giamatti is on a roll these days. Here’s another lead role that carries a movie of wonderful warmth and charm. In this case, the timely story of a struggling lawyer who takes legal charge of an old man, suffering dementia, in order to earn his monthly caretaker's stipend, and ends up inheriting care of his grandson, whose wrestling prowess revitalizes the whole town.

The theme: how to seize control over one’s life against the everyday forces that keep us down – whether they be the economy, uncaring parents, or one’s own fears of failure. Giamatti’s lawyer, Mike Flaherty, is struggling to feed his family, trim the dead tree in the yard, and keep the heat on in his office in eye of the Great Recession when the opportunity comes along to earn an extra $1,500 a month. It’s not a lot, but just enough to make a difference. All he needs to do is bend his ethics a little bit and lie to the judge in order to receive custody of the old man, and his monthly stipend.

But as soon as he does, into his life walks the man’s grandson, Kyle. Kyle has problems of his own – his mother is a druggie who deserted him – and he’s come to live with the grandpa, whom Mike has surreptitiously moved out of his house into a nursing home. Mike and his wife (played with Jersey flare by Amy Ryan) takes in the wayward grandson and slowly coaxes him out of his shell and onto the wrestling floor (Mike happens to coach the high school team). Mike and Kyle are clearly kindred spirits and each begins cheering each other up. When Mike and his friends discover that Kyle is actually a wrestling star from Ohio, a secret weapon for their home team, everyone begins to find their passion again; it even looks like this losing team could go to the finals.

But it’s a relationship built on a lie – Mike told the judge grandpa wouldn’t be put into a home – and even before Kyle’s mother comes back into the picture, we can see where this plot is going.

Yes, it’s a kind of Breaking Away story, using sports as a metaphor for self respect, and we’ve seen a version of this movie every decade or so. But what makes this story rise about the predictability is how perfectly rendered the characters are – both by the script and the actors – and how much we fall in love with all of them, and want everything to work out. (Shall I also confess that, like Kyle, I’m from Ohio, and like Mike, I live in New Jersey, and so I also related to the little details of local color?) Mike is a bit devious but he’s also a stand-up guy – he sincerely cares about his charges as a coach and worries about his family. Kyle is just the opposite: all cool, tattooed teenager and superstar jock, but hiding a sensitive, non-judgmental heart. It also inverts the typical plot, making Mike the hero and Kyle the foil – and so it’s the younger teenager whose cool stoicism and sincere openness wins the hearts of those around him; he’s the sturdy center of the movie who needs to be won over by the imperfect adults, and who has to teach the older men about self respect and rising above tough times. It works.

I was skeptical about this movie at first. Shlubbing around seems to be an occupational hazard for Giamatti characters (casting Jeffery Tambor as his assistant coach doesn’t help that impression), and his best friend – a typical divorced Jersey dude played by a middle-aged Bobbie Cannavale – is a bit of a type. But newcomer Alex Shaffer, as Kyle, brings exactly the right kind of sweet dudeness to counteract this bunch (Fast Fact: Shaffer used to be a high school wrestler). What’s so interesting is how intimidating the middle-aged shlubs seem to the kids, and how intimidating the athletic kids seem to the middle aged middleweights. Everyone has something to learn.

That everyone does so is of course a bit corny, but such sentiments in these trying times are not such a bad thing. Through their tiny acts of taking in strangers, showing kindness, and showing respect, each of these characters helps the others just enough. Us Jews have a saying for this accumulation of tiny kind, personal gestures – tikkun olum, or “repairing the world.” This movie does exactly that in its own, sweet way.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor: The Summer Hammer Comes Down

Thor may be exactly what we want from our summer blockbusters: rainbow-colored special effects, epic battles, sci-fi trippiness, mythological references, and just a little bit of beefcake. On all those fronts this movie delivers, even if it’s thin on human-centered jeopardy.

The middle of a quintet of Marvel-funded superhero origin-story flicks leading up to an Avengers reunion (Iron Man and the Hulk reboot kicked off the multi-movie quest: the other heroes remaining to be introduced – Captain America and Ant-Man – are already in the works), Thor is a departure from the others, the only hero who isn’t a technological or biological freak of this world. Thor is the actual mythic Norse god of legend, and his arrival on Earth – when cast out by his father from Asgard – is neither questioned (why Norse mythology rather than, say Hindu?) nor is he given any more Earthly awe or glory than any average weight-lifting frat boy from Notre Dame. What Thor has going for him, however, is a mighty hammer, forged from the heart of a sun (when he learns the proper respect it’ll work for him again), as well as a frat-boy smile and showy pair of biceps that endears him with the local ladies (played mostly by a fawning and younger-than-Star-Wars seeming Natalie Portman).

Not much happens on earth (other than the predictable mixed-marriage courtship – you know, I’m a dippy scientist, you’re a Norse god of legend, this will never work). Rather, all the interesting stuff in this movie takes place on Asgard, and the illustration of the Norse legend of Odin, Thor, and his trickster brother Loki. Thor’s Dad opens an Eisenstein Bridge (a wormhole to you and me, brought up on Star Trek lingo) and Thor pops onto Earth like a watermelon seed being spit out of the heavens. But what happens next hardly matters: Writer and director Kenneth Branagh was seemingly more intrigued with illustrating the background legendary family dynamics of warrior conflict rather than the busywork of moving around the mechanical backstory pieces of Marvel’s Avengers set-up (the S.H.I.E.L.D. squad, led by the once credits-relegated Agent Coulson, are now firmly anchored at the center of this story, as they haplessly try to diagnose what this god-like phenomenon is). Thank god, because what happens on Earth really should stay on Earth. The much more interesting action has to do with Loki discovering his heritage, trading with the Ice Giant enemies, and tricking Odin into transferring his love of one arrogant son to another.

A smart decision, since while romping through Asgard and other Ice Giant battles, Branagh is able to largely avoid Flash-Gordon-style camp (despite those fabulous costumes) and give us an old-fashioned action, sci-fi yarn of merit.

The story of Thor, then, is not so much the typical super-hero setup as it is the entertaining rite of passage of legend. Take an arrogant, war-happy, powerful youngster, strip him of his powers and his T-shirt, teach him a bit of humility, and make him fall in love with an Earthling and learn the value of life. This makes him a better King. As far as summer movie life-lessons go, it’s not a bad one. If only some of our recent Presidents had learned the same.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Conspirator: History Lesson for Modern Politics

I’m a big history fan so I couldn’t resist seeing Robert Redford’s The Conspirator – about the trial of Mary Surratt, one of the accused southern conspirators who helped plan the assassination of President Lincoln and assist John Wilkes Booth's daring escape.

The movie starts out as any good historical drama should: on the battlefield, with union soldiers hunkered down in a bunker taking heavy artillery. One of those soldiers - Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) - protects his wounded buddy, Nicholas (Justin Long), while waiting for help to arrive.

I would have loved to have gotten more texture about the war, but this scene is meant for one purpose only: to establish Aiken’s bona fides as a war hero and Union loyalist. It lasts a few minutes and that’s all.

Next we’re swept forward to the evening of Lincoln’s assassination. Those who aren’t history buffs may forget that the assassination wasn’t simply the actions of a lone, disgruntled southern actor taking out his anger on the President. It was a carefully planned coup involving several players that targeted not just the President, but the Vice President and Secretary of State as well. The conspiracy is well underway and we get to see with great fanfare the re-enactment of that fateful evening, including Booth’s ill-fated leap to the stage shouting “Sic Semper Tyranus!” (thus always to tyrants) as well as that botched attempts on Vice President Jackson and Secretary of State William Steward. The evening of the assassination is fascinating, with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) taking control and closing off the city to hunt down the conspirators. This, it seems to me, is real drama.

Unfortunately, writers James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein only want to give us the barest bones of what happened, since their real interest is getting us as quickly as possible to Mary’s trial, and setting up Aiken as her reluctant defense attorney (just as we saw with the British in the HBO "John Adams" mini-series, Mary’s best defense is to have an unassailable paragon of the other side - a Union war hero - represent her, even if he’s at first loath to the task). Booth is hunted down and killed, but the other members of the plot are rounded up and tried. One of those members – John Surratt – can’t be found, so his mother (who runs the boarding house where the plot was hatched) is accused instead, and brought before a military tribunal to stand trial.

And this is where history ends and modern metaphor begins. The calamity that is the assassination of Lincoln and simultaneous Southernist attacks on the Executive Branch of US government is portrayed with all the terrorist coordination of 9/11 (even the idea of synchronizing the attacks for maximum terror seems thoroughly modern) – and the trial of Mary Surratt is clearly a stand-in for our own Guantanamo Bay and military tribunal of prisoners of war. The principals even get to argue the same great debate that we hear on our Sunday talk shows: should justice come swift and hard to rally a shocked and scared nation (Stanton), or must we hold to our values and the constitution even in the face of terrible crimes (Aiken)?

Though the trial of Surratt is factual and the situation a clear parallel, I sincerely doubt that any such discussion in 1865 took place with so modern a phraseology about constitutional values and travesties of justice. Putting the script into an archaic idiom would probably not have helped matters any, as the movie is singularly focused on examining this fine point of legal debate. Still, listening to this script, one cannot help but feel the words dovetail more with 2011 television than eighteen century dialect.

Aiken eventually turns around – no longer loath to represent a woman he believes to be guilty, he soon becomes her most ardent defender, even when it threatens to undo his reputation and end his relationship with his betrothed. This transformation is pre-ordained by the Sunday Schoolhouse nature of the plot, so little time is spent demonstrating Aiken’s change in attitude, it simply comes about when the script demands it.

What disappointed me about all this was how interesting the event itself was, and how thoroughly period the costumes (what I love about historical drama), and yet, all that is but background for what’s essentially a courtroom morality play. I would have loved to have opened up this story and really found out more about the conspiracy, the passion of defeated southerners, and the peculiarities of eighteenth century Washington. Instead we get a kind of "West Wing" in top hat and tails, and the metaphor for Guantanamo Bay and modern-day terrorist trials is all we can focus on.

Though clearly there are parallels between the plot to kill Lincoln and our own 9/11 (the movie points out all of them, even a kind of eighteenth century version of the Terrorist Alert system), I would like to point out to the writers that there are differences, as well. For one, Mary Surratt was an American citizen. For another, we had already been in a long war of brother killing brother that had resulted in the deaths of more Americans than anything since. For a third, the terrorists of today have at their disposal the ability to obliterate millions of people in the blink of an eye. In 1865, it was difficult for anyone to travel more than ten miles in a single day. I mention all these because the movie fails to really let us understand the peculiarities of its generational dilemma and let us draw the conclusions about today for ourselves.

I also mention it because, perhaps unintentionally, this movie has me sympathizing just as much with the older “hang-em-all” Secretary of War as the young man impassioned with constitutional values (perhaps you can also credit this to a gusto performance by Kline, who illustrates Stanton's hard-headed reasonableness all too well). In a way, it’s also an old man versus young man argument: young men can afford the luxury of preserving their ideals; old men have to be satisfied with merely preserving the peace. It’s no surprise if I tell you Mary Surratt’s eventual fate, but I have to say, I wasn’t even convinced by this movie that she was wronged.

Which to me speaks to the movie’s core problem. It wants to both be a historical intrigue as well as a cautionary liberal's morality tale about suspending the constitution in times of war. The lessons from one, however, aren’t as simple as the lessons from the other. I loved this movie when it surprises even itself with the messy, complicated character that history – when really understood – inevitably provides. But when it lapses into modern day liberal bromides, it’s as boring as a Sunday morning sermon.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hanna: A Reverse Fairy Tale

This stylish assassin drama by director Joe Wright (The Soloist, Atonement) tells the story of Hanna, a teenage girl raised in the woods by her spy father, and who comes of age by evading the U.S. international spy network in order to solve the mystery of who she is.

With a stand-out performance by Eric Banna (as the father), a deliciously arch villainess by Kate Blanchett (as Marissa, the head spy out to get Hanna), and an intriguing mix of girlish deadliness by Saoirse Ronan (as Hanna), the movie features strong principals and a decidedly Brothers Grim atmosphere of scary woods, carnivalesque cities, and even a wonderfully atmospheric appearance by the Big Bad Wolf.

The script is a bit thin on substance – Hanna’s father toughens her up in the isolated woods in order to release her into the world where she will be a super-assassin, capable of simultaneously disarming tourists with her smile and disabling armed grown men three times her weight with a single karate chop. The rest of the script, the CIA chases after her through various exotic locales (again, remnants of the Bush administration here, as the new “cold war” thematic center on Arabian deserts and underground interrogation centers), while Hannah befriends a British family on holiday as a kind of cover, and learns what it means to be a real girl.

What the script lacks in substance, however, the filmmaking more than makes up for in style. Wright’s wide landscape shots give you no familiar objects – so when Hannah first escapes into the desert, for instance, she could well be in Arizona as much as Afghanistan. Similarly, such context is stripped from conversations and city locales, so what we’re seeing could be happening ten years ago as much as today. Even though Hannah’s final destination takes her to Germany, it’s the Germany of fairy tales and goblins, a landscape ripe with visual metaphor, which Wright exploits to the hilt (going so far as to include a scene of one of Hannah’s friends hanging upside down from his Disneyfied mushroom house ceiling, shot through with arrows like a modern day St. Sebastian).

The sensibilities behind this film don’t feel American as much as European – arch, disco-fied, with an undercurrent of political critique (Marissa, for instance, has a perfectly eerie Texas accent). Perhaps the best thing in this film is the music, which features none of the usual rock choices and instead choreographs Hannah’s violence with house rhythms and classical strings. With the music and the heavy visual symbolism, the whole the production has the air of an early 1990’s German art video.

That may be too much style and too little substance for some people. For me, I was fascinated by Blanchett's Marissa – a vulnerable bully, master spy, and wounded, surrogate mother – who chases after Hanna with ruthless efficiency, and masters just the right amount of Texas twang. She's one of our greatest actresses and it’s worth ten dollars to get to see her do her stuff. When you find out who Hanna really is and why Marissa  is after her, it’s all a bit far-fetched/familiar, and something of a let down. But Marissa does get her comeuppance with one of the most interesting Brothers Grim visual metaphors in the movie.

Daybreakers: The Vampire Cure

Vampires seem to be a dime a dozen, these days, appearing everywhere as neophyte apprentices, seductive neighbor boys, thirsty roommates, and assorted background rabble. So I was unusually intrigued by Daybreakers, an austere movie of the vampire ilk, which gives an interesting twist to the steadfast genre.

For what Daybreakers does well is extend vampirism to its logical conclusion: vampires have fed so ravishly on the human population – turning their victims to vampires in the process – that there are hardly any humans left, and the vampire population is starving. The world as we know it has been replaced by a population of vampires – us, really – doppelgangers who inhabit our lives and have adjusted to working at night, shielding their windows, keeping their fangs in check, and ignoring the suffering of other starving vampires around them. In all other respects (or maybe I should say, in those respects), they are just like us. Or rather, too much like us, for in all their speeding subways and frenzied greed, it’s a stinging critique of modern society.

To make matters worse, vampires cannot drink vampire blood – to do so turns them into bat-like monstrous creatures – another interesting twist on the blood/disease metaphor of vampire lore. With other options running out, however, more such deformed creatures are haunting the suburban vampire neighborhoods, breaking into homes and running amuck, before the vampire Army shock-troops can come in and “eradicate” the problem.

Amongst all this despair of a dying society is a young intrepid scientist, Edward Dalton (played with end-of-world ennui by Ethan Hawke), who thinks he might have – naturally – a cure. Or rather, not so much a cure as a palliative, a substitute for human blood that will allow the vampire population to go on. Edward works – again, natch – for a “major vampire pharmaceutical company” which produces vamp taste treats like B negative, and treats its human subjects with about as much care as we treat our lab animals.

What happens is that Edward stumbles upon what looks like might be an actual cure; nevertheless, the forces of society around him and the company he works for still conspire to track him down, eradicate the cure, and preserve their profits. It’s great social critique stuff – the kind that college notebooks are doodled full of – and even though a spaced-out Willem Dafoe and too sincere Claudia Karvan as one of the last remaining humans galumph along with a deadened Hawke through the second act with comical b-movie sincerity, the cool blues and washed out Magritte landscapes of the vampire city are really well thought out, striking just the right note of modern despair.

The movie also delivers some really good splatter and an especially pleasing closing scenario of what might happen when an army full of vampires begins turning, one by one, back into humans. Those who want their vampire flicks to deliver some great gory climax won’t be disappointed.

As someone routinely unimpressed by the genre, then, I felt this move was worth singling out. B-movie horror has been done so much it could be one of the hardest movie genres to do originally any more. Adding a gloss of sly, social critique - and a few flaming vampires flying acrobatically through the air - is one way to freshen up that tired blood.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Source Code: A Post-9/11 Groundhog Day

Yes, I know it's a film critic cliché, but after seeing the Jake Gyllenhaal helmer Source Code I just can't help myself. The movie is clearly a cross between --

Groundhog Day and Speed
Groundhog Day and Die Hard
Groundhog Day and Body of War
Groundhog Day and Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day and Unstoppable
Groundhog Day and World Trade Center
Groundhog Day and 12 Monkeys

Ok, that's enough.

The film, which stars Gyllenhaal as Afghanistan vet Colter Stevens, has a simple (if convoluted) enough premise: Stevens is being sent repeatedly on a mission into the last eight minutes of memory of a train passenger who is riding on a train destined to blow up at the hand of a terrorist's bomb. Inside the memory (or "source code," if you will), Steven actually assumes the identity of the man whose body he inhabits and whose actions he controls, and can change the course of events through his own decisions and investigations.

This makes Stevens' actions in Source Code not so much an actual memory retrieval as a kind of scientifically / magically justified version of the Groundhog Day premise, in which a period of life can be relived over and over again with different actions, until one learns enough about everyone around to actually get the desired outcome right.

Groundhog Day is a much beloved Eighties cult classic premise, so this re-interpretation for our terrorized generation seems timely and about right. Unlike the comedic Groundhog Day - which focuses on self actualization in the face of loneliness - Source Code takes on more existential questions such as destiny and duty in the face of meaninglessness and death. Even if the science is nonsensical and the ending predictable, one has to commend it for at least attempting to be deep.

It's also a competent action thriller, with some deft dialogue to keep things moving. Stevens is guided in his missions by an aloof but clearly sympathetic captain Goodwin (played with engaging emotional tenor by Vera Farmiga) who speaks to Stevens in his "source code" chamber from a video monitor on the wall (hence the Twelve Monkeys comparison). The coded dialogue between these two helps keep the tension on edge. ("The qualifications for this mission are very narrow," Goodwin carefully replies when Stevens asks why he was chosen.)  Meanwhile, inside his eight minute loop, Stevens learns not only where the bomb is laid but where the hearts of the passengers are as well, and - like Bill Murray in the earlier version - uses that knowledge to enchant his world and empower himself.

Jeffery Wright - as Dr. Rutledge, the scientist conducting these weird experiments - seems to ultimately have something other than Stevens' best interests in mind, however. So it falls to Goodwin to help Colter on to his Good Win within the memory/time-travel that is / isn't the source code. That ending wraps things up a bit too neatly (and in one of those sci-fi mind benders that are impossible to sensibly unwind), giving the movie the feel of old B-movie sci-fi, the kind where a scary aliens, which is clearly a man in a costume, walks onto the set in the last thirty minutes to knock everything down. It's a bit of a shame since the thriller scenes leading up to that are not only quite competent and involving, they're also emotionally relevant, signaling cultural events as recent as the Giffords' shoooting in Tucson or the everyday inconveniences of urban mass transit. This isn't a movie gunning to entertain a specific demographic at the expense of another (a la Tony Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer), but one that seems to have a direct line into the average American of any stripe, and their anxieties about war, people, and everyday life. In his investigation into who might be the bomber, Colter starts by profiling an Arab American; clearly, we know he is on the wrong trail right away, even though the guy looks jittery. Yet his assumptions capture a sentiment that only the most insouciant (or dishonest) of us can say they never had, especially in those days right after 9/11. The film neither castigates not rewards Colter for his mistaken assumption, but simply lets him move on from there to dig deeper. Such is the cultural evenness which this thriller is charged with investigating, and which underlies its most interesting moments.

So I enjoyed this movie, despite it's heavy borrowing, it's repetitive premise, and it's scientific mumbo-jumbo. Brilliant, it is not, but neither is it entirely dumb. Maybe it's simply adrenalin candy for the urban class.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cedar Rapids: Midwest Naivete on Speed

Both a vehicle for Ed Helms and a deadpan parody of Midwestern sensibilities, Cedar Rapids has a little bit of that feeling of weak coffee and ham – that is, like the Midwest itself, it’s unpretentious, somewhat naive, and a bit flat, but nevertheless kindhearted, strangely insightful, and sincere, the last perhaps to a fault (since I hail from Ohio I believe I’m allowed to say such things).

Helms plays Tim Lippe, an extraordinarily innocent thirty-something insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. (If they could have named the town “Bumblefuck” and gotten away with it, I believe they would have.) Lippe has a somewhat girlfriend being played magnanimously (and a bit matronly) by Sigourney Weaver – that is, he believes she’s his girlfriend but we know otherwise – and he’s never left his hometown before. When his company's star insurance salesman dies from accidental masturbatory asphyxiation, it’s not only an embarrassment for the town, it leaves Tim as the only salesman who can travel to Cedar Rapids for the annual insurance convention to win the coveted Double-Diamond Award for his neurotic boss.

We’ve seen these near-autistically naïve characters a lot lately, and especially from the casts of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show." Steve Carell in Dinner for Schmucks, or Will Ferrell in Elf come to mind. I believe these all go back to the Bill Murray golf caddy character from Caddy Shack, with a good dose of Chauncy Gardener thrown in for heart. The basic set-up is always the same: Innocent is goofy but good, comes to big city where he’s made fun of and ridiculed, then turns the tables on the bullies and loses the ostensible prize, but shows his buddies what real friendship is, learns his heart’s desire and wins it after all. These movies always seem to be made by cynical Hollywood or New York folk who probably themselves come from such humble backgrounds and have left them behind long ago. There’s always a sense of embarrassment and resentment at the naïve fucks (excuse the coarse coastal color), no matter how much the innocent hero learns or the friends come to appreciate the softer emotions in life. These movies often feel to me like sublimated rage at the idiocy of small-town manners, gilded in a tale of an elevated naïf. But then again, maybe that’s just a cynical ex-Midwestern New Yorker talking.

Cedar Rapids follows the same basic formula; however, one gets more of a sense of actual care for the Midwest characters. Not all these Midwesterners are naïve nor innocent – in fact, Cedar Rapids surrounds Ed Helms with a cadre of other notable Midwest types, including the party boy, the bad girl, the upright Black dude, the prostitute, and the Christian hypocrite. Not all of these are that original, but they are diverse and they do give the movie a broader feel of real Midwest parody.

Compared with Brown Valley, Wisconsin, Cedar Rapids is the big city, and the rickety, two-story hotel where the conference takes place the equivalent of Disneyland. I really enjoyed this reduced, reoriented perspective; watching the characters go through their convention antics and hotel cut-ups really felt like watching a scene inside a snow globe. Despite the sex, the drugs, the backstabbing, and the malfeasance that takes place, none of it feels all too serious since these people, when you get down to it, can’t help but like each other.

I’m not sure I’m the greatest fan of Ed Helms, though. He does right by the character – bringing that expected combination of naïveté and pluck. But he doesn’t really carry the lead as he should. He's surrounded by a cast of pros - including John C Reilly, Anne Heche, and Sigourney Weaver - who are able to modulate their performances from one to five while Helms stays on a constant 4. By the end, the gentle irony underpinning the film gets trampled by the "Daily Show" stock approach. I'm a critic who hates criticizing actors, especially comics, who have it tough enough. But I can't help but feel in the hands of another actor, this film might have delivered better on its promise of gentle ribbing and insight. Instead, the movie hovers half-way between indie character sketch and cheap Comedy Channel shtick. In the end, I think which type of film you think this turns out to be depends largely on how much you can overlook Helms in the lead.