March 27, 2009

Monsters Vs. Aliens (03/27/09)

Lettergrade: D

Monsters Vs. Aliens largely follows Dreamworks Animation's standard operating procedure... which is to say that it isn't exactly a bad movie, but it's not an especially good one either.

The key roles are filled by popular media personalities, many of whom I happen to like, but the story they've lent their voices to feels a bit familiar and tired. That's an odd statement to make, really, as I cannot specifically recall another picture where a misfit band of mutants are called upon to defend the earth from an impending alien invasion, but nevertheless it somehow feels like we've seen this play out a couple dozen times before, and certainly with a bit more wit than what we've got here.

I guess the inventive component is that our heroic monsters are all take-offs of popular movie creatures from the 50s and 60s... there's a parody of the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Will Arnett), the Blob (Seth Rogen), the Fly (Hugh Laurie), and our heroine, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, who suffers from the same affliction as the main character from 1958's Attack Of The 50ft Woman. Is there a single kid watching who will get any of these references? And since the teenagers of 50s and 60s are mostly in their 60s and 70s now, who exactly is all this nostalgia in there for anyway? The movie gets a few decent laughs out of each, but there isn't really a whole lot more to any of them than the standard material about not fitting in with society, but having to learn to like themselves for who they are, etc.

The week before the movie came out, there was a big ass article in the L.A. Times about how 3D animation is the way of the future and cinemas had better make way. There were quotes a-plenty by Dreamworks Animation's head-honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg in there, which fueled my suspicion that the article was not much more than a thinly disguised P.R. piece. 3D movies had better start getting a lot better if Katzenberg's prognostication is to be believed. Thus far, I've come to equate a movie's touting of the fact that it's in 3D with the very strong possibility that the movie doesn't have much else going for it. I never saw last summer's Journey To The Center Of The Earth, for example, but everyone I know said it is only worth it in 3D... which I took to mean that it's not worth it at all.

Indeed, I don't really think that the 3D effects enhanced Monsters Vs. Aliens or any other movie I've seen in this process one bit. The opening logo looked cool, I suppose, but once I got past the first couple scenes, I sort of stopped thinking about the digital multi-plane look and was more annoyed than anything that the picture was a little dimmer and not as clear as if we had seen the movie in a traditional 2D theater for less money. If there's a lesson there it's that in the future I should think of 3D as an interesting novelty, but something that's primarily a forgettable distraction. Appropriately enough, that's likely how I'll remember Monsters Vs. Aliens itself too.

March 15, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (03/15/09)

Lettergrade: B

One of the reasons I really liked Sunshine Cleaning is for its two leading ladies: Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. The film's naturalistic, slice-of-life story is a good one as well, although when I think back through it there are some fairly gaping and mysterious holes that were started and then somewhat abandoned part-way through (I'll get to those in a bit). Nevertheless, the picture at large is interesting, well-made, and certainly worth checking out.

The ads loudly proclaim that the film is from the same team that produced Little Miss Sunshine, although it should be emphasized that the writers and directors are completely different. I must admit that I didn't much care for the earlier movie: I found it to be awfully contrived and mostly populated by wafer-thin caricatures of people from better movies. Little Miss also pissed me off by blatantly stealing several plot points directly from National Lampoon's Vacation, right down to Aunt Edna / Alan Arkin both dying mid-way through each family's journey to California and having to be strapped to the roof of the car for the rest of the way!

Cleaning is a little more reminiscent of Amy Adams' earlier picture Junebug in style and tone as well as 2000's fantastic You Can Count On Me, which starred Laura Linney. Here, Adams' 30-something single mom is still sleeping with her old high school sweetheart Steve Zahn, who is himself is married with a family on the other side of their small New Mexico town. When her son gets kicked out of another school for misbehaving, she needs to make some money fast in order to send him to a private one. Zahn tells her that in his job as a homicide detective he's noticed that crime-scene clean-up services make an ass-load of money, so she starts a business with Blunt, her pot-smoking deadbeat sister, in order to make ends meet.

Two things about Cleaning in particular really won me over. The first is that the story unfolds in very "real" way which never really pushes the limits of credulity. For example, after cleaning up after the suicide of an older lady, Blunt seeks out and befriends the woman's estranged daughter (played by the omnipresent Mary Lynn Rajskub) without telling her that detail. When the truth eventually comes out, Rajskub reacts quietly, in a way similar to how a real person might - not with the stagey theatrics that usually come with these scenarios in movies. This philosophy extends to the rest of the movie too, which contains no grande finales or big summations of what any of the characters believe or have learned. It's not a picture which has tidy conclusions, and I really appreciated that.

The second aspect that won me over is a little more abstract: It's the film's interesting technique of not necessarily front-loading the audience with information that will simply be revealed in due course anyway, forcing us to figure out who everyone is and how well they get along with each other based on context-clues rather than clunky exposition. During the first post-coital scene between Adams and Zahn, for example, you slowly start to understand the nature of the relationship we're looking at: We're in a motel room, so one of them must be married. He seems a little more affluent and family-oriented, so it's probably him. He's offering to help her pay for more night classes, etc, which makes you wonder why he feels so much financial responsibility toward her. Eventually, we piece together that they were a couple in high school, but the details of why they split up and how they got back together are refreshingly left off-screen. It crossed my mind that Zahn might be the father of Adams' son, which might explain a lot about how they behave with each other, but my wife disagreed that that's what they were hinting at.

Other revelations, like what exactly the story is with Adams and Blunt's late mother, come into focus much more gradually, but still deliver a strong emotional punch in addition to making us reexamine certain scenes in new ways . Again, these things aren't secrets... The withholding of these details is not milked for tension, as the typical installment of Lost might do, but instead are used to tell the story in a much more interesting, unhurried way.

My main complaint, however, is that this structure also allows several plot elements to be virtually forgotten as the picture moves along. Once we've established that Adams is going into biohazard clean-up in order to afford her son's private school, to name but one instance, it is pretty much never mentioned again. When the business undergoes some setbacks later, she talks as if she only got into that unsavory line of work so she would have something in her life to be proud of. Huh? Similarly, Adams and Blunt are reprimanded for breaking several waste disposal laws early in their business venture as well as operating without the proper permits. Apart from one brief scene where Adams appears to attend a class in order to get her license, this too goes by without any actual consequences, most conspicuously the legal kind.

Sunshine Cleaning was filmed around two years ago, but has gone undistributed until now. There were several "editorial consultants" listed in the end credits, which likely indicates that the producers recut the hell out of the film before it was able to find a release. I'm sure the continued success of both female leads helped that process along as well. All this might explain why certain plot elements seem to vanish before the movie ends. Really, though, that's all just minor griping over a movie which, for the most part, works pretty well.

March 7, 2009

Watchmen (03/07/09)

Lettergrade: F-

Watchmen, based on the popular DC Comics graphic novel of the same name, had been in development for 10-15 years or so. I spent all but the last few days before the film's release not giving much of a shit about what it was about or whether or not it got made. Now that I've braved the finished film's nearly 3 hour running time, I sit here a thoroughly baffled man. I would say that I can safely return to ignoring the Watchmen universe at large, but at the same time I feel compelled to spend a few minutes thinking about why the movie just didn't do anything for me.

I like superhero movies... particularly when they're aimed at a thinking, adult audience, as last summer's The Dark Knight was. Unlike The Dark Knight, unfortunately, I don't think Watchmen found a way to be relevant or to have a good reason to exist. Why make this movie? Why do it now? It's about geopolitics on some level, but a perverted, alternate-reality version of them which imagines that U.S. history and the Cold War had both progressed very differently than they actually did. It is also a world in which superheroes exist, but much like in 2004's The Incredibles, the government has forced them into retirement and they live among us, pretending to be normal.

But before we get into that, a little bit of the premise: It's 1985. Nixon is still president, having amended the Constitution to allow for that, apparently. The world stands on the brink of nuclear war with Soviet Russia, but that's okay because the bright blue government-controlled superhero Dr. Detroit (played by the astonishingly dull Billy Crudup) has the ability to basically do absolutely anything he wants just by thinking about it, including turning any nuclear weapon the Russians might send toward us into yak jizz simply by wishing it to be so.

One night, an older superhero-in-hiding, the "Comedian" is killed under mysterious circumstances. This gives the movie an excuse to introduce us to the large community of superheroes who all seem to live in New York. The other thing it sets up is an endless fucking series of comments revolving around the Comedian's schtick. There are literally dozens of lines like "this was the Comedian's greatest joke of all!" and "I guess the Comedian got his final punchline!", etc.

Anyway, the superheroes all know eachother and they're all friends... It's kind of like the much-loved cartoon show The Tick, but without any of the comedy (in other words, like the live-action TV series The Tick). The gang includes Swedish model Malin Akerman as the vinyl-clad Silk Specter II, Patrick Wilson as the gadget-loving NiteOwl (who is high in the running for having the stupidest looking costume in superhero movie history), and Little Children's Jackie Earle Haley as the mysterious Rorschach, who attempts to figure out what the hell happened to the Comedian, Phillip Marlowe style, and steals the show as the movie's most interesting character by a mile.

We're not told a lot about who all the superheroes are and what they can do upfront... the movie allows that to unfold at a snail's pace using a series of flashbacks and turgid, meandering conversation between the characters about what life used to be like back when they, you know, DID STUFF. The Comedian's backstory is particularly gruesome, involving the slaughter of innocent people for fun and attempted rape. I guess the name is supposed to be ironic, but he's still a pretty horrifying, sadistic asshole, and it's hard to be sympathetic to the fact that he got whacked early in the movie.

Suffice to say that there's a very complicated conspiracy afoot, although even after the film's climax, when all the cards had been laid out on the table, it still made approximately zero sense to me why anyone would do anything they did or even why the Comedian needed to be killed in the first place. I'll keep this spoiler free, but a key part of the plot, for example, involves the fact that Dr. Detroit is making a device that is used for evil purposes in the film's final act. He knew what he was building, he knew what it could do, and he knew who he was building it for. Why, in God's name, did he spend even a second of his time doing it? What the hell did he think his employer was going to do with a device like that?

That aside, though, the script contains a lot of pseudo-philosophical jerking-off and bullshit symbolism about the nature of mankind that came off as hollow to me as it did stale. I think a key reason that virtually none of this connected is again because the world we're dealing with is so far removed from anything resembling reality now. The United States has not appointed a dictator-for-life who is marshaling the world toward nuclear armageddon. Super-beings aren't part of the equation, and therefore there's not much of a debate about whether or not mankind is worth saving. And in the face of massive tragedy, the world has not united, either for better or worse, the way the movie suggests it might. Suggesting otherwise, as the movie does, is more fantastical than virtually anything else that happens on screen during the film's painful 168 minutes.

While walking out of the theater, my wife and I tried to fill in this blank: "well, at least the ______ scenes were okay." I quickly realized that there wasn't really anything I felt good about putting in there. The sets were nice, I guess... and there were some cool shots here and there, although I wouldn't really call it a well-shot movie. In the car on the way home, I decided that the highlight was maybe Rorschach, but even he didn't make the rest of the movie worth it. Watchmen is mean-spirited, dull, esoteric, and pointless. On top of all that, it is virtually free of any amount of joy or drama. Of course, the graphic novel could have been like that too, but a comic book is a comic book while a movie is a movie. This one might have needed a few more years tacked onto its already lengthy development purgatory in order to come out a little more watchable.