July 24, 2010

The Kids Are Alright (07/24/2010)

Lettergrade: A

The Kids Are Alright is an ensemble drama about a family with two mommies where the children decide to get in touch with the man whom their parents selected as their sperm donor way back when. I enjoyed the picture thoroughly because the writing was natural and believable, characters felt authentic, and the casting was dead on, with Annette Benning and Julianne Moore as the couple, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the kids, and Mark Ruffalo as the stoner frozen pop.

I saw writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's previous movie, 2002's Laurel Canyon, on cable years back and found it to be awfully sensationalist and outside of the realm of plausibly for much of its running time. As such, I was a little reluctant to see this fearing that it would be the same kind of thing. Nothing pisses me off more about a good drama than when characters do things that aren't justified by the story and which seemingly betrays who they are. I appreciated that The Kids Are Alright never does this. Although there are moments that push the boundaries of plausibility a little, the characters largely feel like they could be real people, and that they accordingly make real decisions.

A warning, however, is that the film does feature a handful of really graphic sex scenes. Normally, I have no problem with that sort of thing (and in fact, I seek it out), however, my mother was in town for the weekend, and for some reason I thought it'd be a good movie that we all would like. We did, but there sure was a lot of Julianne Moore ass and Mark Ruffalo junk-flashing before we got to the end.

July 16, 2010

Inception (07/16/ 2010)

Lettergrade: B

We saw Inception the weekend it came out, but I never got around to writing about it due to a lot of personal business combined with my usual laziness. Now that I've sat down a month later to do so, it strikes me that I haven't really thought about the movie much in the time since. I recognize that it's expertly made and very good, of course, but I don't know... I also found it a little cold and choppy, and ultimately too wrapped up in itself to be all that involving.

There's no shortage of intellectual and philosophical fat to chew on, but I guess the movie didn't stimulate my imagination as wildly as some of Christopher Nolan's previous movies did: Memento, 2006's The Prestige and in particular 2008's Batman sequel The Dark Knight. Back when Dark Knight came out, I remember a lunch with my friend Cindy where we both admitted that we had seen the movie, like, three times already in the week it had been out. Inception, by contrast, was an engaging three hours, but not an experience that I'm lingering on much, nor do I especially want to revisit in order to unlock more of the mysteries. And boy are there mysteries to unlock.

Although the concept is unlike anything I can remember seeing in a movie before, the general plot premise is a classic: A master thief (Leo DiCaprio) must engage in "one last big job" before he can retire and leave the life of crime behind him. The twist, of course, is that what he typically steals are people's secrets, and he does it by entering their dreams and getting the subject to metaphorically "give up" whatever information it is that they're trying to get (information that will supposedly be worth a lot of money to someone for mysterious, off-camera reasons, we can assume).

The usual proceedure changes when Ken Watanabe approaches Leo not about stealing someone's secrets, but instead planting an idea into someone's head, or "Inception." If Leo can pull this supposedly impossible task off, Watanabe can make all his legal troubles in the US go away, and he won't have to be a fugitive dream thief anymore. To do it, he assembles a crack squad of other dream heisters that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and painfully out of shape Tom Hardy. Unbeknownst to his co-horts, Leo's been on the edge for some time now, and his dreams have been continuously haunted by the specter of his dead wife Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, whose presence, also unbeknownst to them, is a serious threat to the mission and places them all in jeopardy.

I don't want to get into specifics with this movie, but I will say that after introducing such an intriguing set-up, the way the movie played out kind of disappointed me in a few key areas. Foremost, it felt like it was a much longer movie that became a lot shorter during post production, meaning that a lot of the character stuff feels vague and undernourished. This is most heavily felt in the scenes where Ellen Page and Leo talk, which seem rushed and trucated. I almost suspect that they decided to remove every other scene they had together from the movie in the interest of getting the running time down. During several of their mid-movie exchanges, I caught myself thinking, why the hell is she saying that to him now? I assume a lot of this was trimmed to make way for the "big heist" sequence which, while spectacular, seems to take up at least the last 90 minutes of the movie.

Additionally, the nature of the dream world that the gang enters felt a bit too literal and regimented, with strict rules that don't get anything close to any dream I am aware of having. My dreams tend to feel a little like hazy, rambling lies that keep changing as they go. One moment you're in one place, and the next you're someplace else doing something else: Everything shifts to accomodate whatever the stream of conscious needs, often mashing incongruent places and things together for the sake of trying to get things to make sense. Credit the middle entries in the Nightmare On Elm Street series for getting this feeling right. The Inception dreamscapes feel a little more like a video game, or the Matrix from The Matrix, or the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I don't entirely understand the rules of the dream world either, except that there don't seem to be any. How, for example, did Mal "take" another character into Limbo late in the movie? She shot him in one dream, but then took him into another? I just don't understand how Limbo is supposed to work, although I think I understand what Mal is supposed to represent in his subconscious.

I think the movie made sense... The rules of the world were laid out so fast that I'm not sure if it stuck to its own logic or not! I felt like a lot of the movie was Nolan sort of showing off his intellect, but even so I'm not convinced I really had a grasp on how the world works why they had to do certain things at particular times.

In a way, it reminded me of a staging of "Arcadia" that I saw in college: That play is a little like Tom Stoppard showing off how smart he is, and it ultimately becomes like a bewildering intellectual blitz that (for me at least) was pure, unadulterated agony. I hated it for that, and I have a small amount of animosity toward Inception for similarly setting up such a dense world and then giving the audience so few tools to actually figure out what the hell it's trying to do. I appreciate movies that become richer upon repeated viewings, I really do, but I think they've got be accessible on some level the first time through, otherwise it's like the director arrogantly spitting in your face, proclaiming his work to be worthy of you watching multiple times before you can truly understand the brilliant message he was sending out to the world.

Another example of this for me is Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, which I watched probably a couple dozen times on DVD and love dearly, versus his next movie, The Life Aquatic which I saw once on opening weekend, and hated so much that I walked out of it a few times, only to return upon realizing that the only other thing playing in the theater was Lemony Snicket. People who have taken the time to really figure that one out assure me that there's a lot of great stuff in there. I say life is just too short, and I'd rather catch up on episodes of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia that I missed the first go around.

Funny thing is, I liked The Dark Knight (and several of Nolan's other movies) because it was a popcorn movie that aimed really high. This new one feels like one of those art-house mindbenders that knows how to look like it's smart when in fact it's mostly being dense and unclear. Is it okay to say that I admire Inception more than I actually enjoyed watching it? That the movie is excellent, but simply didn't knock me over the way I was hoping for? Is there a problem here that's rooted in extreme hype and impossible expectations?

Predators (07/16/2010)

Lettergrade: B-

I probably enjoyed Predators a lot more than I really should have. On one hand, it's easy to single out several aspects of it that miss the mark a little: the screenplay relies on elements from the first movie a bit heavily, some of the casting of the secondary roles is kinda shoddy, and like in the first movie, there's a serious drag about 2/3rds of the way through the picture that really needed to be worked out before they declared it finished. On the other hand, however, it also succeeds as a cool sci-fi action movie and it's a great throwback to the cheesy macho 80s-style of filmmaking that I really loved as a kid.

Like a lot of guys my age, I've got a great deal of nostalgic love for the original 1987 Predator. In that movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger leads a crack military team (which includes such screen luminaries as Carl Weathers and fellow future governor Jessie Ventura) on a mission into Guatemala, where they encounter a bad-ass alien hunter that sees in infrared heat and who picks the soldiers off one at a time.

After the enormous success of the first flick, the Predator himself returned for several more screen appearances that were all somewhat underwhelming. The most respectable was 1990's Predator 2, in which the Predator travels to the urban jungle of Los Angeles and gets in the middle of crime war between the LAPD and a Jamaican street gang (!), only to be thwarted by supercop Danny Glover. The Predator sat dormant for years after that until the 2004 franchise crossover Alien Vs. Predator, which I saw in the theater but can barely remember, and 2007's ridiculously titled Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, which I went through the trouble of renting, but never actually watched.

And now, because of the vague success of those movies, there's Predators, which wisely gets back to basics and feels sort of like the good sequel that the original movie never quite got back in the day. As soon as it became clear that the concept was to take the premise of Con Air, throw in a dash or two of The Most Dangerous Game, and mix in several elements from the original Predator, a big smile landed on my face that held up for most of the movie.

The picture opens with Academy Award™ winner Adrian Brody waking up in mid-plummet, parachuting down into a strange jungle without any memory of how he wound up in that situation. He quickly realizes that he's not alone: A good half dozen other soldiers and trained killers from all other nations have been air-dropped with him. They include a burly Russian, a massive African dude named Mombasa, a mysterious member of the Japanese Yakuza called Hanzo (fans of Sonny Chiba and the Shadow Warriors series take note), fan-favorite Danny Trejo as Cuchillo (a Mexican cartel enforcer), and Topher Grace as a medical doctor who seems out of place in the group.

The whole first part of the movie, where the group gradually figures out that they're in an alien game preserve and being hunted by Mysterious Alien Creatures, is probably the strongest. As the picture advances, one gets the feeling that there's not quite enough material to keep things interesting, in spite of a scenery chomping appearance by Laurence Fishburne, a scavenger who was brought to the planet several "seasons" back and has been able to hide from the Predators and learn all about them (sort of like the Newt character in Aliens).

In addition to a really entertaining performance from Brody, who evokes Christan Bale's husky voice from The Dark Knight and David Caruso's swagger and one liners from CSI: Miami, there's also the gorgeous Alice Braga as a deadly CIA agent who may know more about what's happening than what she lets on. From Brazil originally, Braga upholds of the Predator tradition of the lead actress of each film being a tough Latina woman, and like Brody, she's really good in the flick.

A lot of pleasure for me came from seeing a well-done, modernized take on material I already liked, which is to say it did a great job of recreating the tone and feeling of the first movie, without outright copying it. Sort of like Freddy Vs. Jason, the movie totally understood what it needed to do, and mostly did it right... from the kinds of characters who appear on down to the musical score, which makes heavy, heavy use of the Alan Silvestri themes from the first movie. Unlike F vs. J, however, this one didn't quite go over the top for me. The climax was great, but as I've said, there was a bit of a slowdown mid way through that the movie never quite recovered from.

Robert Rodriguez wrote the story premise back in 1995 when El Mariachi was getting him a lot of attention. Fox thought it was too expensive to make at the time, and sat on it for over a dozen years before deciding to dig it up and pull the trigger on it now. Rodriguez ultimately oversaw and produced this new movie, but left the directing to Nimród Antal, who has made a couple American thrillers in recent years including Vacancy and last year's Armored. Although I like Rodriguez generally, his movies tend to feel cheap and semi-improvised with crappy effects that he seems to do in his own garage on After Effects. I was initially worried that his take on the Predator series would abandon the lushness of the other productions in favor of that approach. Luckily, both he and Nimród seemed intent on making the picture blend as seemlessly with the others in terms of production value as possible.

July 10, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire (07/10/2010)

Lettergrade: B

The Girl Who Played With Fire is based on the second book in Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" series, the first of which (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) was made into a film that hit the States earlier this year. I really liked that first movie. This second one, while still good, packs much less of a punch. My wife has read all three books, and seemed to suggest that her initial reaction to the second film is similar to how she felt about the second book at first, only to feel much more satisfied in hindsight when she got to the third one.

I know nothing of these characters as they exist in novel form, but found them fascinating in the first movie, which was, at its core, an above average detective story that was greatly enhanced by the interesting and complex people who were trying to solve the crime. In this one, vindicated journalist Mikael Blomkvist (which I'm pretty sure is the Swedish word for "blumkin"), is back to work at Millennium, the investigative newpaper he co-runs, when a young reporter comes in with a well-researched article about underage sex trafficking in Sweden that could implicate several high profile politicians, etc. Suddenly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the young reporter and his girlfriend are murdered (along with a bunch of other people), and Blomkvist takes up the story himself in an attempt to solve the crime. Simultaneously, the elusive Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who has been traveling abroad since the events of the last movie, returns to Sweden and finds herself on the run, having been implicated in at least some of those same murders.

I think the first picture benefitted from having no real expectations (other than that it was supposed to be good), and also from the lean, economical filmmaking overseen by director Niels Arden Oplev, who chose to focus on the crime plot first, to let the characters develop and grow from that, and to keep the sweeping crane shots and artistic flourishes minimal. Daniel Alfredson, who took over as director for part 2 (and the forthcoming part 3), is a bit more showy in how he approaches the material, and does not handle it quite as successfully. Foremost, his approach to filming action scenes seems to be to put a long lens on the camera, get to close to the subject, and shake the hell out of it while whatever's supposed to be happening is happening (as evidenced by a lengthy fight scene in a barn mid-way through the movie where I could not tell who was punching who and who, if anyone, was winning).

Both movies are long, but Dragoon Tattoo felt much more succinct than its 2.5 hour running time would have you believe, whereas this one, roughly the same length, feels much slower. Under Alfredson, there are more long, meaningful looks that come off as a bit superflous, and at one point the movie even stops dead in its tracks for a few minutes so Lisbeth can have a ridiculously overblown Cinemax style sex scene with her sometime lover Miriam. I guess the filmmakers felt they had to put in something for disgruntled boyfriends who were dragged to a Swedish movie with subtitles under protest, but I still think the movie might have been better if it had played Lisbeth's sexuality a little more neutral-bordering-on-dispassionate, as the first one did.

As I was saying, however, the "plot" aspects of both these movies seems to be secondary to our main characters, who do the sleuthing. Although I have very positive memories of part 1, it even took me a moment or two remember the general details of the crime they were trying to solve in that one. This picture is a little more dense in its plot dealings, and I found I had trouble keeping track of which ridiculous Swedish names went with what ridiculous Swedish faces. Additionally, as this is one of those part 2s that is designed to lead directly into part 3, I ultimately left the theater feeling a little letdown that certain aspects of the movie didn't seem to pay off (concerns which, my wife tells me, will be addressed later). Nevertheless, it's still a good movie, and I daresay more interesting than any American crime thriller I've seen in recent memory.

My journal entry for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

July 6, 2010

The Last Airbender (07/06/10)

Lettergrade: B- (but with some hesitation)

The Last Airbender kicks off with 30 minutes or so that are truly awful. Crappy, dinner theater level acting... cheap, unconvincing sets... and dialogue that neither feels true to the time and place on screen, nor does it stray that far from the big book of fantasy movie clichés. After that rocky start, however, the picture unexpectedly hit me with a nifty sequence that wasn't bad (the first time Aang demonstrates his abilities in the Earthbender Village), and as the movie continued, I was further surprised that it kept getting better after that. I generally feel it's hard for a movie to survive such a terrible opening, but somehow this one did it for me (although I realize I'm in the minority in that regard).

Before we get into things, however, I will offer the backstory that I'm unemployed at the moment, and decided to see the movie, in spite of the piss-poor reviews, largely because I was bored and wanted to see something. I chose Airbender because I thought I might like the chop-socky stuff, and to be honest with you, I still haven't given up hope that there might be a good movie in M. Night Shyamalan yet (my extreme dislike of The Village, The Lady In The Water, and The Happening notwithstanding). This one isn't exactly the fantasy/action masterpiece that you'd hope for from the talented guy who made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs earlier in his career, but the second half of this movie did remind me why I liked the guy's flicks back then in the first place, and for that I give it credit.

Based on a popular Nickelodeon faux Animé series, the general story is in keeping with a familiar theme in Shyamalan's work: A really talented and/or gifted person must come to terms with how incredibly awesome he is. This time, the character that Shyamalan chose to stand in for himself is a kid named Aang, who's been trapped in the ice for a hundred years. Now, the people in this world have divided into four tribes, each representing the essential elements of life: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Within these groups, there are a select few (called "Benders") who can manipulate their tribe's signature element, much as Jedi knights can move shit just by thinking about it in the Star Wars movies.

Anyway, the emperor of the Firebender tribe is a serious asshole, and before the movie started, he decided to try to dominate the other tribes through all sorts of violent means, including outright killing all the Airbenders, as it is well-known that from them comes the "Avatar" (sort of a messiah type), who can, with the proper training, bend all the elements, and presumably kick the Firebender guy's ass right back to Mumbai. Since the Airbenders are no more, the world assumes that the Avatar will not return... untiiiiiiiiiil a couple of Waterbendin' kids inadvertently set Aang free.

Since Aang, clearly the last of the Airbenders, was frozen young, he was never trained to be a true Avatar, meaning that he spends a good amount of the movie exploring and learning. There's interesting, if overly familiar, stuff in there about listening and responding to nature that I thought was effectively staged. The rest of the film's main action features Aang and his companions traveling from village to village, freeing the enslaved and inspiring the willing to fight (ala Braveheart), mixed in with some requisite action scenes, some of which were pretty cool.

I think the movie, which currently has an 8% positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com, is getting beaten up by three main groups: The first walked in already expecting any movie that Shyamalan makes to be wretched (frankly, I would have thought that I would be among them). The second are fans who adored the Nickelodeon series which ran from 2005-2008, and are upset by what Shyamalan did with the source material. The third seems to be people who saw the movie in 3D and are upset that the low-grade last-minute conversion that Paramount ordered shortly before the film's release makes the picture look dull and lifeless while simultaneously providing almost no 3D effect. Readers of this blog know that I believe 3D technology peaked with MuppetVision 3D at Disneyland in the early 90s, and refuse to see any film in the format these days. In 2D, the image was bright and crisp, and the visual effects didn't seem as crappy to me as they did to Roger Ebert, who spent a good chunk of his entire half-star review railing on how bad the process serves the material.

As I said, the very worst part of the film (for me) was the beginning, where we are with the Waterbenders. The two white kids who travel with Aang throughout the movie (and one of whom narrates occasionally) are wretched actors who feel painfully contemporary and perky, as if they've just come to set directly from presenting at the Kid's Choice Awards. They shatter every scene that they play even a remotely significant part in. Fortunately, they kind of fade into the background once Aang shows up to claim the movie, and at times I had even forgotten that they were around to kick everything off.

Shyamalan chose to mostly cast the Firebenders with actors from his native India, including Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel as the evil emperor's exiled son and The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi as a meanspirited general. I caught myself giggling early in the movie whenever Mandvi's voice was heard, as I could only imagine him wearing a fly fisherman's jacket and standing in front of a crappy blue-screen image, ready to give a smart-assed report to Jon Stewart. Nevertheless, he eventually was able to fade into the role nicely, and makes for an effective baddie.

In closing, I know that it's getting a serious critical flogging, but I didn't find it to be nearly as awful as Shyamalan's previous few movies. The editing is a bit rushed in places, and sometimes I felt the film didn't effectively show you the correct story points in a way that allowed you to process and understand them. There's a little clunky dialogue here and there, but it doesn't miscalculate the audience's reaction or drip with pretension like his more recent efforts have.

The early part of the movie reminded me a bit of The Neverending Story, not only because of Aang's pet air-bison Appa, who looks sort of like an obese Falcore, but also because of the general premise of kids on a quest through a fantasy world chalked with mystical spirituality. Neverending had a lot of soul, and took time for quiet moments that never failed to completely captivate and scare me whenever I watched it. During the early scenes of Airbender, I wondered why this movie, which has really cool source material to draw from, failed to take a lesson from such masterful templates. In the end, though, I think Shyamalan made a movie that at least has a heartbeat, and I'd rather see a good (albeit not entirely successful) attempt at that, than a movie like The Prince Of Persia, which is bigger and louder, and tries at nothing.