June 26, 2010

Cyrus (06/26/10)

Lettergrade : Incomplete

I hesitate to even write about Cyrus at all, to be honest with you. In spite of my extreme hatred of Jonah Hill, I did like what I saw, but the problem is that I only saw about half of it. We were sitting pretty close to the screen, you see, and this is a movie that was shot using handheld video, even though the cast includes big stars like John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei and directors Mark and Jay Duplass had a sizable budget to work with. Those who ride in cars with me regularly know that I'm fairly prone to motion-sickness, and I eventually reached the point where I just had to bolt and hang out in a nearby bookstore while my wife finished the movie, lest I ralph all over the seat in front of me, and probably wind up missing the second half of the film anyway. In any case, I thought the first part was entertaining, and my wife tells me that the second half was good too. So there we are.

Reilly plays a film editor (!), who has been in a tailspin since ex-wife Catherine Keener has announced that she's going to be remarrying. He meets Tomei and forms an instant connection, which is complicated by her live-in adult son, Hill, with whom she shares an unusual closeness and who has a resistance to his mom dating. The part of the movie I saw contained the usual back and forth headgames that you might expect from such a story, but it did it with an atypical amount of heart that seemed to make the proceedings a little more interesting.

I will say, however, that the section of the film that I made it through also made me wonder what the handheld video style really added, if anything. I'm not just saying that because of the nausea: the Duplass bros seem to be telling a pretty standard comedy story here that doesn't necessarily call for such a technique. I would think that a movie would have to be made like this because the content isn't mainstream enough for any studio to fund and/or it stars actors that are not marquee names or of whom no one has ever heard. But this is a movie produced by Fox Searchlight and mega moviemakers Ridley and Tony Scott via their own Scott Free productions. They had to make their earlier films such as The Puffy Chair using handheld video because those were their financial limitations and the only way to get them done. Cyrus was made this way, I would guess, because they wanted it to seem edgy and independent, which frankly strikes me as a bit disingenuous. I understand the impulse to not make another cookie cutter studio comedy, but why not do that when you're writing it instead of when you're shooting it?

June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3 (06/18/2010)

Lettergrade: B+

Although I liked the first Toy Story well enough when I saw it in 1995, it wasn't until Pixar's next two movies - 1998's A Bug's Life and 1999's Toy Story 2 - that I really became enamored with the richness and quality of what the company was putting out. Toy Story 2 especially is one that I still consider to be a near-perfect movie: It's clear, exciting storytelling that has a powerful thematic thrust and brims with depth, originality and fun. As far as I go, it's the gold standard against which all other computer animated pictures are judged, and none have been able to match (although 2007's Ratatouille got close). Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars... they all simply felt like they were revisiting ideas that Toy Story 2 had already handled much better.

As such, from the moment it was announced that there would be a third Toy Story, I somewhat dreaded how the Pixar folks would try to continue everything. The previous one had concluded so beautifully and poetically that it simply felt like there wasn't much more to say. 2 was about Woody coming to terms with the fact that someday Andy would grow up and would probably move on from wanting to play with him. Nevertheless, he made the decision that in spite of the risk, he wouldn't miss out on it for anything; The idea being that it's better to live a good life and enjoy the ride while it lasts instead of living forever in a state of isolation and never having the ups and downs.

Toy Story 3 picks up years and years later, when Andy is getting ready to leave for college. Only a handful of toys are left in Andy's room (several having been broken or sold), and Woody is reluctantly facing the abandonment that he had decided to accept toward the end of the last movie. The rest of the toys, long neglected, live in fear of a long stint up in the attic, or worse yet, the junk yard. Instead, they decide to slip into a box headed for a daycare center across town and off toward the plot line for another sequel.

Thematically, the movie seems to revolve around that old classic: the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, then ultimately Acceptance). The way some of the stages play out (particularly that last one) make for several very powerful screen moments, however, I'm not convinced Toy Story 3 found as strong a reason to exist as 2 did. Nevertheless, it's wonderful to see these characters back in action once more and it winds up being a very pleasurable adventure all the same. However, I will caution that it's one that sends our beloved characters through several incarnations of purgatory: through a long period of neglect, to a prison gulag for toys where toddlers abuse them and they're tortured by bigger meaner toys, and finally to the river Styx where our heros literally face being chopped and burned while on their way to hell in a sequence that I'd imagine will terrify most children who see it.

The first half hour or so of 3 really rubbed me the wrong way, frankly, because it seemed to horribly betray the peace that Woody had reached when we last saw him. This whole aspect of 3 in relation to the end of 2 made me think of the scene in Young Frankenstein where Gene Wilder tells his assistants that he will bravely lock himself into a room with the Monster for as long as it takes in an attempt to tame him... only to break down crying almost instantly, begging to be let out. It's not until the toys realize they need to escape from Sunnyside Daycare as fast as possible that everything really starts to gel and the picture recaptures the spark of the earlier two.

But what of that spark, and why does it take the movie a little bit of time in order to find its footing? I have a theory. Those involved with the first Toy Story used to comment about how it was a technical miracle that the movie reached its 81 minute running time and got finished at all. 2, clocking in about 10 minutes longer, was of course a massive challenge as well; the movies were getting visually more sophisticated but the company's resources were better and they had already been through a few features at that point. 3 comes in at nearly 2 hours, and seems to let itself ramble and meander a bit more than its predecessors did. Because those earlier movies had stricter limitations, I suspect the story department, then led by the late and irreplaceable Joe Ranft, made sure that every frame and every scene of the movie did something. Watch Toy Story 2 again... notice how efficiently the film sets up Woody's problem, and how fast it gets him out the door and into the hands of the villainous toy collector... all while continuing to feel very light and breezy. It's does it all in 4 or 5 scenes spanning about 10 minutes of a very tight, structurally sound movie.

In addition to the minor structure / pacing issues, though, another issue I had was that the picture recycles a little too much from previous entries in the series. Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty) has an awful lot of similarities to Stinky Pete from part 2. Even the way his story concludes at the end of the movie is pretty much identical. And come to think of it, wasn't the "five stages of grief" bit used to great extent for Up last year as well? Man, these guys need to mix it up a little or they're going to get a reputation as the computer animated death company.

In any case, though, Toy Story 3 is a fine movie overall and a good night at the cinema. As I was saying, I sort of lived in fear of the day that Pixar would attempt to make it, much as I feel franchises like The Godfather, Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee should never have been dusted off and given another spin a decade or two after their prime. I guess I'm a little disappointed that Toy Story 3 didn't have me doing cartwheels out of the theater like the first two movies did, but then I realized that my age has doubled since part 1 came out and such behavior would probably look pretty stupid anyway.

My journal entry on the Toy Story Double Feature that was out last October.

June 12, 2010

The A-Team (06/12/10)

Lettergrade: C+ish

This new A-Team movie is indeed big and dumb, and gleefully ignores (as Roger Ebert eloquently pointed out) every law of physics that we've got. Nevertheless, I'll give it some slack for being a better movie than I thought it would be, and for casting actors that I enjoyed watching. The plot they've assembled to participate in is, of course, patently ludicrous, making the storyline of the first Mission: Impossible movie seem cohesive and simplistic by comparison. The style is a sort of Michael Bay light. The camera work is mostly handheld and all over the place (but not too bad, really), and the editing is frenetic, but only nonsensical whenever an action scene is going on. The picture as whole veers a little more toward "bland" than "bad," and I found it to be a somewhat pleasant surprise in this, one of the least interesting movie summers that I can remember.

The movie's prologue features the usual origin story / "assembling the team" schtick that most remakes of old TV shows go for. We start in Mexico where Hannibal Smith (played by the semi-conscious Liam Neeson, donning Leslie Niesen hair and a Groucho Marks cigar), is working some kind of military operation with the impeccably manscaped Lt. Templeton 'Faceman' Peck (Bradley Cooper). On his way to bail his ass out of a tight spot, Hannibal very randomly meets yet another Army Ranger (or whatever their unit is called) named B.A. Baracus, here portrayed by classically trained Shakespearian actor and Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson. There's a really fucked up scene in Rampage's van where Neeson gets all Qui-Gon on him and goes on and on about how their meeting was not a coincidence but the will of the Force or something like that. Based on that, Baracus agrees to help him. In the European version, this moment is reportedly heavily modeled after his scenes with Peter Sarsgaard in Kinsey, so we North Americans really dodged a bullet.

Anyway, after a preposterous action sequence where the van unrealistically jumps over stuff while lots of things simultaneously blow up, the trio winds up at an army hospital near the border where they recruit a fourth Army Ranger (H.M. 'Howlin' Mad' Murdock... perfectly played by District 9's Sharlto Copley) to help them hijack the hospital's only helicopter and fly them the fuck outta there before the pissed off Mexicans arrive. Not sure what a US army hospital is doing in Mexico, but whatever.

8 years later, after the opening credits, the four have formed a cohesive squad that pulls off crazy missions that the rest of the US military can't, apparently (sort of an "Alpha Unit," if you will). They're in Iraq, not long after the fall of Saddam, and are double crossed while on a mission to retrieve some printer plates that were being used by the Iraqis to counterfeit 100 dollar bills and devalue the US dollar. They're promptly tried in a military court, and sent to the slammer for crimes that they didn't commit. This is followed by ANOTHER sequence in which all the guys break out (or are broken out) of their maximum security prisons and engage in YET ANOTHER "ROUND-UP" SEQUENCE THAT IS VERY SIMILAR TO THE ONE THAT WE SAW ONLY 25 MINUTES EARLIER.

I won't bother trying to describe the rest of the plot because frankly I didn't understand much of it. There are various governmental agents involved who all look like eachother and who are all double-crossing one another. At various points during the movie, you think each of them is dead, but then it turns out that they're not. Jessica Biel is another governmental agent because the movie needed a hot woman in it. Fine.

The action scenes require a suspension of disbelief in order to tolerate. The team often figures out complex geometrical equations on the fly and relies heavily on luck and coincidence in order for them to come off without a hitch (which, come to think of it, they always happen to). Consider a scene where the gang is shot at whilst in a military plane: The plane is going down, so they get into a tank, drive the tank out of the plane, and then fire the tank's weapons in specific directions in order to guide it into a lake right next to the Ricola mountains in Switzerland. Even more amusing is Biel's nonchalant reaction to all this while monitoring from a control room.

I have two more comments before laying this one to rest. One is editing based: Many times during the film, someone (usually Neeson) lays out a very detailed plan that is intercut with glimpses of the team actually doing it later. Something about it felt extremely off-putting and confusing to me, and I'm not sure the filmmakers found the right way to distribute that information to the audience.

The other is that this is one of those remakes that could have easily been just another action movie that wasn't called "The A-Team" at all. They got away from the spirit of the show a little (TV's Team there was more about helping people with local problems, not fending off international counterfeiting rings or whatever the hell else is happening in this one), and therefore it rankles me that this is not an attempt to rekindle the characters or celebrate the source material as much as it was a business decision to market a standard action movie that has a familiar name on it, hopefully resulting in better ticket sales.

This is something that I've been thinking a lot about lately. Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible movies, for example, have virtually nothing to do with the TV series, other than the general premise of an American spy pulling off tough missions. In fact, the three movies (and counting) don't even seem to resemble eachother much. On the show, it was more about the team working together to pull off something, dare I say it, impossible, whereas the films frequently kill off Cruise's team early on, and he spends the rest of the movie as a one-man wrecking machine who ends geoterrorism single-handedly (or at least until a another film is green-lit by the studio).

The A-Team does makes frequent nods to the show (the hairstyles, the frequent inclusion of Mr. T's trademark "fool" in much of Rampage's dialogue, etc.), but all in all it doesn't really evoke the memory of it much. It's perfectly decent summer movie fare on its own, you understand, but it also feels a little bit like it was assembled in a Hollywood test kitchen. Director Joe Carnahan was actually supposed to write and direct a Mission: Impossible movie himself at one point, and a couple times during the movie I found myself wondering if that picture would have been nearly identicle to this, but with Cruise's character in the Neeson role, Ving Rhames's M:I persona substituted for the Mr. T part, and someone like French Stewart as a Murdock equivalent, grafted in for comic relief. I guess we'll never know...

June 11, 2010

Micmacs (06/11/10)

Lettergrade: B

Micmacs was made by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known to American audiences for 2001's Amélie and 2004's A Very Long Engagement, and before that, the cult classics Delecatessen and The City Of Lost Children. This new one is a heist movie filtered through his trademark whimsy. While it's not the best film in his canon, it's smooth and enjoyable with more tension than what you're likely to find in The A-Team, which happened to open the same time that this limited release made it to LA.

Dany Boon plays the gangly-looking Bazil. His father was killed by a landmine in Morocco when he was young, and as an adult, a stray bullet from a nearby robbery puts him into a coma and causes him to lose his coveted job as a video store clerk. Now homeless, he takes up with a gang of circus and street performers who all live in a Parisian junk yard, including Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a human-cannonball record-holder as well as Julie Ferrier as an oddly sexy contortionist. Together, they all help Bazil take down the two weapons manufactures who were responsible for Bazil's misfortune via a series of whimsical set pieces.

I found the movie to be pleasant, but somewhat lightweight over all. I was a little surprised to see a strong anti-weapons message in a movie that is a farce at its core, but that didn't necessarily bother me. The film reminded me most of the first Mission: Impossible in that the set pieces were expertly staged, and made great use of silence in order to ratchet up the tension. The rest of the movie is infectiously charming, as Jeunet's movies tend to be, and would be a pleasure to watch for that alone.

The picture is in French with subtitles, but honestly so much of the movie contains wordless action that I didn't even really think about the fact that I had to allow my eyes to dip in order to figure out what the actors were saying occasionally. Additionally, as a life-long film score nerd, I got a kick out of the fact that the soundtrack made use of a number of archival score pieces by old school composer Max Steiner as a supplement to the original stuff by Raphael Beau.

Micmacs (aka Micmacs à tire-larigot) was released in France in October of 2009, and is Jeunet's first movie since 2004. Even though he's a foreign-language director who is atypically well-known to American audiences, I appreciate that's stuck to making the kinds of movies he's wanted to. His one foray into Hollywood filmmaking was 1997's Alien: Resurrection, on which he found himself handcuffed by Fox and unable to really make the film he wanted to. Amilé, his greatest financial and critical success, was made after that, and he's always resisted Hollywood overtures since, including Warner Bros.'s aggressive campaign to get him to make the fifth Harry Potter film, which ultimately went to dry and unimaginative TV director David Yates. Part of me is sad that some of these large properties won't have the benefit of a inventive filmmaker like Jeunet on their side, but at the same time I admire that he'd rather make his own movies his way, and not get pushed around while making them.